Can the Judge Time-Limit Your Case?
October 7, 2014 § 4 Comments
In this district, we impose a one-hour-per-side time limit on temporary hearings. It has proven to be an effective way to deal with the numbers of temporary hearings that, if they were not time-limited, could swamp our court system.
Rulings in temporary hearings, however, are not appealable, so the time-limitation issue does not affect record-making that might have an impact on appeal.
What about hearings leading to final judgments? Can the judge impose a time limit on the presentation of your case?
In the MSSC case of Barriffe v. Estate of Lawson, et al., handed down October 2, 2014, the chancellor imposed time limits on the presentation of the parties’ cases because he felt the attorneys were unprepared and had consumed an entire day questioning the first witness. After he entered judgment, he granted a new trial on a R59 motion because he felt that, perhaps, he had been unfair in imposing the time limits.
On appeal, the majority of the court said, “We see little evidence in the record that the chancellor was unfair to either side with respect to time limitations, and we note that his threats [to cut off overtime questioning] were mostly unenforced.” The majority (5-3, with King not participating) held that the chancellor properly granted a new trial.
Justice Coleman, however, dissented, disagreeing that the chancellor was correct in granting a new trial based on the time limits. His opinion sets out the applicable law:
¶47. On the second day of the first trial, the chancellor accused the attorneys of not being prepared for trial and, after the attorneys took more than a day to question the first witness, the chancellor limited the time for questioning the remaining witnesses. Mississippi Rule of Evidence 611 provides:
The court shall exercise reasonable control over the mode and order of interrogating witnesses and presenting evidence so as to (1) make the interrogation and presentation effective for the ascertainment of the truth, (2) avoid needless consumption of time, and (3) protect witnesses from harassment or undue embarrassment.
Miss. R. Evid. 611(a). Rule 611 “is designed to give trial judges some measure of control over the operation of trials and the smooth flow of the litigation process.” Moore v. Moore, 757 So. 2d 1043, 1046 (¶ 14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000).
¶48. In Moore v. Moore, the defendant claimed that his due process rights were violated because the trial judge limited the trial to one day. Id. at 1046 (¶ 11). The Court of Appeals found no merit to the claim because the defendant knew the time limit from the beginning of trial, he did not object, the defense called seven witnesses, the defendant testified, and there was “no indication in the record . . . that the time limits placed on the trial by the chancellor were problematic.” Id. at 1046 (¶¶ 12-14). The Court of Appeals said if the defendant’s “trial strategy was adversely affected, then a record outlining the adverse effect should have been preserved” for the appellate court to review. Id. at 1047 (¶ 14). The Court of Appeals recognized that defendants have “a right to introduce evidence at a hearing[,]” however, “if there is no evidence to present or no proffer as to what would have been presented, then there is no legitimate basis for complaining on appeal about the chancellor’s control of evidentiary presentations.” Id. at 1046 (¶ 13) (quoting Morreale v. Morreale, 646 So. 2d 1264, 1270 (Miss. 1994)). See also Gray v. Pearson, 797 So. 2d 387, 394 (¶ 29) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001) (court did not overturn chancellor’s ruling limiting each side to two hours of trial testimony because appellant did not make a timely objection or make a record of evidence she would have presented without the time limit).
¶49. In the instant case, although the chancellor gave time limits for three witnesses, he did not adhere strictly to the time limits he set. The attorneys were allowed to exceed the allotted time when they questioned Eugene, and although the chancellor noted the time, he did not instruct them to stop. The chancellor limited the time to ten minutes for each side when the Barriffes called David and Dwight. The Nelsons waived their time to cross-examine both David and Dwight. When the Nelsons called David, they were given forty-five minutes for direct examination; they used only twenty of the allotted forty-five minutes. No time limit was placed on Dwight for the Nelsons’ direct examination. The Nelsons did not use all of the time allotted, they did not object to the time limits, and they did not identify any evidence or testimony that they were not able to present. In my opinion, under these specific facts, the chancellor’s imposition of a time limit on three witnesses, which he did not enforce, did not amount to a violation of due process, and the chancellor acted within his discretion when he limited the time for questioning witnesses.
If your chancellor imposes a time limit in your case, and you feel that your ability to make your case is adversely impacted, you need to be sure to make a timely objection, and make an offer of proof of the evidence you would have been able to present without the time limit. Without those essential elements, you will not be able to argue the point on appeal.
But from both the majority and the dissent in this case, it seems like it would take a pretty unfair scenario for the appellate court to overturn the imposition of time limits.