JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A federal appeals court heard arguments Tuesday about whether a Jacksonville judge erred when he removed a juror in the corruption case against former Congresswoman Corrine Brown.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld Brown’s conviction last January, but a September order from the court vacated their ruling, opting to hear arguments “en banc” – meaning before the full 12-member court.
At issue is U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan’s decision to remove a juror at Brown's 2017 trial who said he was told by the “Holy Spirit” that she was not guilty. The juror’s refusal to consider the evidence prompted the jury foreperson to write a note to the judge expressing concerns. After hearing from both jurors, Corrigan determined the man was not able to follow the court’s instruction to deliberate based on evidence, and removed him.
The case has drawn attention from eight Republican attorneys general and Christian rights groups who joined Brown’s appeal citing concerns that Corrigan’s decision “threatens to unfairly exclude religious individuals.”
“The District court committed clear legal error in dismissing a juror who insisted he was following instructions and deliberating, because he not only sought divine guidance about the law and the facts, but sincerely believed he received it," said Brown’s attorney, former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, in his opening statement.
U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Lagoa, a conservative justice appointed by former President Donald Trump, echoed that concern, noting that appealing for divine intervention to make decisions is common for many Americans.
“Many denominations including Catholics believe in the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit that you receive upon Confirmation, and one of those is the gift of counsel. Which is praying to the Holy Spirit to make decisions, wise decisions,” she said. “A lot of people believe in asking and seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rhodes representing the government (i.e. the judge) said it was necessary to look at Corrigan's decision in context, including the fact that the juror made his statement before deliberations began. He also said the court should rely on Corrigan's assessment of the juror's credibility.
Judge Robin Rosenbaum, a President Barack Obama appointee and part of the three-judge panel that initially upheld Brown’s conviction, agreed, noting, “The reason we have the District Judge there is to make determination of credibility and to base them on things we can’t see.”
Other judges asked Clement if his position would be different if instead of telling Juror 13 Brown was innocent, the Holy Spirit advised him she was guilty.
Judge Aldaberto Jordan, another Obama appointee, wondered whether Brown’s lawyer would still uphold the juror’s right to take spiritual direction if the juror was receiving advice from Satan.
“Would the result be the same if Juror 13 had said that Satan told him that Corrine Brown was guilty on all charges?" Aldaberto asked. “Everything in the case remains the same except that the juror says, 'I asked for guidance from Satan, and Satan told me Corrine Brown is guilty on all charges.'”
Clements responded, “I think it’s the same result, your honor, and I think you need to have the same result in order to uphold the First Amendment value. Put Satan aside for one second – people pray in different ways, people understand they receive answers to their prayers in different ways. I think the problem here is to treat a direction from the Holy Spirt as 'a bridge too far,’” he said, quoting the judge’s own language.
Brown was convicted in 2017 on 18 felony counts of fraud and tax evasion in a case that stemmed from a fraud charity she operated for personal gain. Brown was released from prison last year, having served less than half of her five-year sentence, and was later released from house detention. Although she is for all intents and purposes a free woman, her appeal continues to move forward.
An immediate ruling from the court is not expected.