Final Trial

By Justin O’Dell

As we continue to look at Dick and Jane and the topic of divorce, we have moved through a temporary hearing, looked at their discovery issues and we are now headed for a showdown. Mediation – a final settlement conference – has failed. The question for the parties as they head to a final trial is this: Judge or Jury?

Georgia is one of only two states (Texas being the other) that allows for a jury trial in divorce cases. However, certain issues involving minor children, specifically custody, visitation and child support are not subject to jury resolution. Jury trials in domestic cases are rare. Most often, a jury trial is demanded in instances where the judge assigned to the case has certain tendencies and proclivities that are contrary to the interests of one party or in instances where the judge, in temporary proceedings, has dealt with a party harshly (for example, a temporary contempt citation) and the party does not wish for that temporary situation to influence the ultimate outcome related to alimony or property division.

For these reasons, it is critical that in the process of selecting counsel, Dick and Jane inquire about their attorney’s experience in the County wherein the case will be filed. Outcomes in divorce are variable by Judge, particularly in cases involving alimony and valuation/division of self-owned businesses. Some Judges tend to believe in and award alimony as a matter of course, unless given reason otherwise and others view alimony with skepticism and require a substantial showing of cause before making an award. In high asset cases, the judge assigned to the case and their tendency in this regard can have a net effect of tens of thousands of dollars on the parties. If Dick or Jane were to get a “bad draw” in the judicial assignment and the case cannot settle, a jury trial conversation and election may be the option of last resort.

A jury trial adds significant expense, at least double or more, when compared to a bench trial or trial before a judge. In addition to standard trial preparation, each attorney must prepare for jury selection, jury charges and jury verdicts. Even more importantly, Judges often allow a degree of informality to non-jury domestic trials, specifically related to the use of evidence, the flow of witnesses and testimony and behavior of counsel. A jury trial is presented and conducted with a higher degree of formality and requires a higher degree of preparation.

Although each jury is different and hard to predict, there are some tendencies that also emerge from juries. Generally speaking, a jury is likely to contain one or more members who have divorced. Those jurors are going to bring personal bias and experiences to deliberation that can have an effect on the outcome. These experiences can cut both ways. For example, a divorced female who received alimony might be inclined to make an award to Jane and a divorced female who did not receive alimony might be disinclined to do so, reasoning “I did not get it, why should she?” Divorced men become less predictable. Does a divorced male who had to pay alimony view the payment with resentment and “stand up for his fellow man” and deny Jane support or does he approach the situation with “I had to pay my share, so should he”?

The presentation to the jury will also have to be tailored by the lawyers. In presenting information about the value of Dick’s business, the parties will have to make sure that the expert witnesses are able to adequately convey all of the aspects of the valuation process. Typically, lawyers and experts are presenting this information to judges who have repeatedly heard about the valuation elements and are simply looking for the summary. Jurors have to be educated from square one. Common sense would also seem to dictate that a jury is going to want to get the information needed, make a decision and get home. The lawyers would then be careful about getting into too much of the fault issues, adultery and history of problems during the marriage. However, the popularity of reality television, gossip magazines and entertainment “news” shows teaches that everyone loves to hear about someone else’s train wreck.

Ultimately, for Dick and Jane, a bench trial is probably the most likely scenario. Even when faced with particular biases of a Judge regarding certain aspects of a case, the reality is that it can be easier to convince one person to change his or her mind than to predict the minds of twelve inexperienced strangers and change their inherent prejudices.

Next month, we will wrap up the Dick and Jane divorce adventure with a discussion about their final trial and trial strategies.