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California jurors will no longer have to ponder the meaning of “innocent misrecollection” and “malignant heart” when trying to decipher the state’s criminal jury instructions. An eight-year labor to rewrite 700 instructions in plain English will most likely win approval when the state Judicial Council votes on the new jury language on Aug. 26. [NLJ, 11-8-04]. Since the 1930s, California’s jury instructions have been concocted from the tangled snippets of appeals court decisions as a way for appellate judges to talk to trial judges-not communicate to jurors, according to California Chief Justice Ronald George. In one example, the old version told jurors, “Innocent misrecollection is not uncommon.” The new version says, “People sometimes honestly forget things or make mistakes about what they remember.” Archaic language George said his favorite example was the reference to the “abandoned and malignant heart” as part of the murder instruction. It is part of describing malice or ill will, he said. Some changes simply eliminated archaic language, such as describing passing a bad check as “authoring a check.” The new criminal instructions, if approved, will take effect on Jan. 1, 2006, throughout California. The Judicial Council gave its blessing to a plain English version of civil jury instructions in 2003. A nationwide effort California’s efforts are part of campaigns in a number of states to simplify instructions to jurors. Alaska and Nebraska each embarked on rewriting what judges say to jurors more than 20 years ago. Although California’s court system may not be the first to make the transition to more comprehensible instructions, it is the largest court system to do it so far. Others that have joined the effort to simplify instructions include Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin. Asked whether he worried that the changes might spawn new rounds of legal challenges that often accompany altered jury instructions, George said, “There is always a possibility of litigation when instructions are changed.” But he added: “I feel very confident that with the two distinguished court of appeals justices heading this task force and with the experts from the bench and the bar, that they will withstand scrutiny.”

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