Federal judge who questioned meaning of 'drop-down menu,' didn't instruct jurors is tossed from case

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Unsealed transcripts indicate that a Louisiana federal judge was removed from a case after lawyers alleged she failed to instruct jurors about their duties or to determine their eligibility for service during a criminal fraud trial, then asked the prosecutor to assume the responsibility.

U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi was removed from the St. Charles case in February, and a new judge declared a mistrial, the Associated Press reports. The reason for the mistrial was a mystery until AP obtained the transcript after petitioning to have it unsealed.

In the unsealed transcript (PDF), federal prosecutors and a public defender jointly asked U.S. District Judge Donald Walter in a telephone call to grant a mistrial. The chief judge had assigned Walter to the case in an order that cited Minaldi’s inability to be present at the trial, but provided no additional explanation.

The public defender, Cristie Gautreaux Gibbens, told Walter that on the first day of voir dire, jurors weren’t qualified on the basis of citizenship, and there was no questioning or explanation of the burden of proof, presumption of innocence and the defendant’s right not to testify. Jurors didn’t receive preliminary instructions on the duties of jurors and the requirement that they refrain from discussing the case, she said.

The next day, Gibbens said, prosecutors asked for curative measures and Gibbens moved for a mistrial. At that point, Minaldi instructed jurors on certain issues but the curative measures were insufficient, Gibbens alleged. Gibbens said she took responsibility for not objecting and doing things to cure the problem, but cumulatively the problems had adversely affected her client, who was accused of fraudulently obtaining federal funds, according to this prior Associated Press story.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Luke Walker said he joined the mistrial motion because he was ordered to instruct the jury. Based on that order, Walker said, he instructed jurors about reasonable doubt, the presumption of innocence and the need to refrain from discussing the case. In appearance, Walker said, he “became an arm of the court, and I think that prejudices all parties and I don’t think that’s curable.”

In a transcript (PDF) of the second day of the trial proceedings, which was already available, Gibbens and Walker told Minaldi they were concerned about the lack of jury instructions. “You know,” Minaldi said, “it’s so seldom that we have jury trials here, I forget. OK. I forget but I rely on you to remember.”

Questioning of witnesses resumed the same day with questions by another prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Moore. Minaldi expressed frustration with Moore, who was questioning a witness about the defendant’s grant application that is filled out on a computer.

Minaldi interrupted the questioning for clarification on the meaning of a “drop-down box” and “drop-down menu.”

“I have no idea what that means,” Minaldi said after the reference to drop-down menu. “If I don’t understand it …” The witness begins an explanation but Minaldi interrupts.

“No offense, but if I don’t understand it, I don’t think anybody else is going to understand it,” Minaldi said. “I’ve been to law school. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I have no idea what y’all are talking about.”

At that point, the witness explains computer drop-down menus, and resumes answering the prosecutor’s questions. Moore questions the witness about part of the grant application with “Y’s and yeses.”

Minaldi interrupts to ask what that means, and the witness explains they are answers to a list of questions seeking a yes or no answer.

Minaldi decides to break for lunch. “Get your act together. Okay,” Minaldi told the prosecutor. “I have no idea what’s going on here. Get your act together.” The trial didn’t resume.

Minaldi was also removed from a criminal case without explanation in March, according to the AP story.

Minaldi did not immediately respond to the ABA Journal’s request for comment.

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