I am currently working on a federal criminal appeal that will go to the lovely building a few blocks away that houses the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit here in downtown Atlanta. The appeal involves a “jury instruction”, which means the rules of law that the trial judge provides to jurors at the end of a trial to assist the jury in deciding whether the prosecutor has, or has not, proven that the Defendant is guilty as charged. Working on this appeal caused me to think back about how I learned of the importance of jury instructions in a federal criminal case.
My interest in federal criminal cases began when I “clerked” for a couple of federal judges directly out of law school. A federal judicial clerkship is a great job, you work for the Judge, and help him or her with research, writing opinions and anything else the the Judge wants you to do. You also get to see lots of cases up close, and after a while you start to realize that you might actually be able to do as well, if not better, than some of the lawyers who have cases in front of your Judge. Along the way, you learn a whole lot more “law” than they ever taught in Law School.
Judge K was the first one for whom I clerked. He was great, let me sit in on anything and basically gave me a tutorial on what was happening in real time: “Paul, this lawyer is trying to protect the record, while this other lawyer is trying to get me to make a mistake for a possible appeal”, and the like. Judge K also knew I was interested in possibly becoming a federal criminal defense lawyer, so he let me sit in on just about every trial of that sort.