It’s interesting that our law school evidence classes teach us the mechanics of the rules of evidence, however, (if my memory serves) we’re not given much guidance on how to decide whether, assuming a question is objectionable, it is a good idea to object during trial. It is true that the rules of evidence have application outside the context of a jury trial, and in fact it can be years before a lawyer actually has to make the decision whether to raise an objection at trial. But the question whether it makes strategic sense to object in the presence of the jury merits some analysis.
I consulted Professor McElhaney and, as expected, he had wisdom to impart. In Litigation, he articulates rules for when to object. I’ll list the first five here.
Rule One: Wait for a Reason
Only object when you have a good reason to object, and this means that “it advances your theory of the case.” Id. at 211. McElhaney reminds us that jurors resent objections. Why? Because they understand the point of an objection is to keep information from them, keep them in the dark. Assuming your objection is sustained, the jury will most likely understand that you have succeeded in an attempt to keep a piece of information from them. It must have been important information, or else why would you have made the effort to object–at least that’s how the jurors will think.
Rule Two; Don’t Object When It Will Help Your Opponent
I’ll confess that applying this second rule, obvious as it seems, may be challenging. This is because I’m not sure it will always be clear how my objection will help my opponent. Professor McElhaney gives two examples. In the first example, your opponent is leading a witness because so much time has passed that her memory has become fuzzy. You could object to the leading questions, but McElhaney points out that leading questions send a message that the witness cannot be trusted to remember properly, so your opponent’s leading questions may not be helping his cause, and the objection, sustained or not, will likely lead your opponent to improve the witness’s credibility by asking fewer leading questions.
In his second example, your opponent is fumbling through trying to lay a foundation for a business record. If you object, it “may help educate him so he will do a better job with other business records that are much more damaging.” Id. at 212. Let him fumble.
Rule Three: Only Object When Your Objection Deserves to be Sustained
The subtle message sent to the jury if you make objections that are overruled is that you are not especially fit to guide them out of the “swamp” of trial. McElhaney is careful, however, not to suggest you limit objections to only those circumstances in which they will be sustained, but rather only those instances in which they deserve to be sustained. “There are times when you simply must make your record, knowing the trial judge will overrule your objection.” Id.
Rule Four: Object Outside The Jury’s Presence If Possible
McElhaney is careful to distinguish outside the jury’s presence, from outside the jury’s hearing. Jurors hate sidebar conferences.
Rule Five: Object Promptly
This also makes sense. But he also gives an example of where an opponent exaggerates or fabrics a fact during his closing argument. He suggests it could make sense to wait, not object, and instead comment upon the fabricated or exaggerated fact during your rebuttal.
One point McElhaney makes really rings true for me on the subject of objecting during trial: “you have a limited good-will account with the judge and jury at the start of the trial. Everything you do in the trial affects that account. You are always making deposits and withdrawals. . . . [A]n objection looks like you are trying to keep something from the judge and jury, so it usually counts as a withdrawal.” Id. at 211.