Can a legal case be too complex for the judge?

Is it possible for a legal case to be so complex that the judge decides to just give up? That is, if the case involves so much legal minutiae and highly complex, contradictory expert testimony that the judge simply cannot understand it well enough to issue an informed decision, can he simply say so? If so, what happens?

In cases of complex civil litigation, a judge might appoint a “special master” with expertise in the subject under litigation. The special master’s job is to help the judge understand what the facts are. I don’t know if it’s possible to have a special master in criminal trials. (Special masters pop up in other roles too; Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund was referred to as a special master.)

I don’t know if a judge could bring in a special master on legal issues, but ISTM it’s the judge’s job (with the help of her clerks, if any) to figure out how to apply the law. Mistakes in application of the law, if any, are why we have appellate courts.

Not the judge, but I remember reading about one software patent case where the jury just could not understand the technical issues involved no matter how hard they tried, and as a result, they were unable to reach a verdict.

It’s a really interesting question. One thing that would be procedurally important is that one party or the other has the burden of proof.

If it’s a lawsuit over some harm caused by medical technology, say, the plaintiff would be asserting that because of (fancy too-complicated mumbo-jumbo) the defendant should be liable. If at the end of the trial the plaintiff’s fancy experts haven’t convinced the judge sufficiently, that means the plaintiff loses. The judge is entitled to say hey, your experts haven’t presented a compelling case, so I’m not convinced your theory is correct.

Can a Judge recuse him/herself due to limited special knowledge of the law/facts of case?

It’s the job of the lawyers to “educate” the judge.

Where the legal issues are too complicated, just apply the current law the best you can and let the appeals court sort it out. If it’s too complicated for the final court of appeal, they’ll make better law.

In the UK, a judge with the necessary expertise would be appointed. This usually happens in medical or fraud cases.

That is an interesting question. I imagine there are legal cases that are immensely complex and difficult, with ten-thousands, if not hundred-thousands or more pages of court files. The legal teams on both sides consist of attorneys, paralegals, assistants, accountants, specialists of all kind in battalion strength, but the judge is always a lone warrior? :confused:

It is my (limited. layman’s) understanding that a judge does not necessarily need to understand the issues, they just need to determine which side has presented their case best within the law as the judge understands it.

You may get a frank answer to this question in a bar frequented by barristers on a Friday afternoon. :wink:

The law is always complex. It is my contention that neither lawyers, judges, prosecutors, defendants, police, politicians, lobbyists, citizens nor legislators understand it to any real degree. Everyone is just winging it.

That’s kind of the point, though. Better to wing it based on a concrete, objective written work that some significant fraction of the people can vaguely agree on (and that we can all point to and quote), than to wing it based on personal whim and emotion. At least you get something resembling a logical argument in the first case.

I was involved in a complex naval hearing and a ‘Special Master’ was brought in to help clarify matters. I wonder if in other cases the onus would be on either side to provide witnesses that are sufficiently intelligent to both understand and communicate the issue effectively to the judge/jury.

As an aside, would a special master be utilized for a jury trial? Could they throw their hands up and collectively say, “We just don’t understand this!”?

No, that isn’t how it would happen. For a start, IME judges can ask counsel to clarify areas of their respective cases. In my jurisdiction it isn’t unheard of for a judge to say he requires the parties to supply him with written submissions regarding a particular area of the case. The judge wouldn’t say so but this might well be because they don’t feel they are across it, and want a summary. The common wisdom is that when you are writing such submissions you should write them in a way that amounts to “writing the judge’s judgment for him”; in other words you write your submissions so that, with a bit of figleaf rewriting, the judge can easily just use your submission for his judgment if he agrees with it.

I have certainly read judgments where I felt the judge didn’t really get it. In the end if they aren’t sure they will just adopt a position and write judgement as best they can, and let the chips fall where they may. The appeal court can sort it out.

I was involved as an expert witness in a case where the two sides were arguing the very technical details of how a circuit board worked. The judge essentially told both parties that he didn’t understand a thing they were talking about and they should figure out a way to settle it or he’d have to… something… and it would get very expensive for both of them. I won’t pretend to remember 20 years later exactly what the judge said he’d have to do, but I do know that he admitted to everyone in court that day that the issue was too complex for him to understand and rule on himself.

In the end they did just that; they agreed to a settlement that everyone could live with.

Don’t judges sometimes ask interested parties for ‘briefs’ sometimes during, or after, a trial? Are these for the purpose of helping the judge make a decision, or to understand something? ISTM that I have read news articles, or press releases, where this has happened, but no cite.


The parties file briefs. A court can allow an amicus or an intervener to file as well, but normally they come to the court and ask to participate. It’s not the role of the judge to actively seek interveners.

This is kind of goofy. It’s certainly true that there are areas of the law which nobody understands, including lawyers and judges. For example, there is a long running dispute in my field over just what the fuck the burden of persuasion is (see dissent). But for the most part, lawyers and judges understand the law.

Hey RNATB, speak for yourself!

I’m speaking for others. It’s way too complicated for me! :wink: