I’ve written before about the wisdom, in the context of a jury trial, of obtaining pretrial orders by the judge excluding or significantly limiting certain items of evidence you anticipate will be offered by your opponent. The typical vehicle for obtaining this relief in American courts is by filing a motion in limine. This term is derived from Latin, and means “at the threshold.”
Why do courts entertain such motions? If one party attempts to introduce objectionable evidence, whether by an examination question or offering an exhibit, in front of the jury, it may be impossible to “unring the bell,” or make the event 100% harmless, for two reasons.
First, if the question or exhibit is damaging enough that the jury gets the gist of its import before the judge sustains your objection, the practical effect is little different than if the evidence had come in without objection. (Worse, in some ways, if you recognize that the objection itself may “wake up” jurors and alert them that what they’re about to hear–or not hear–is important.)
The second, more subtle reason, which I’ve previously described, is the assumption on the part of jurors whenever they hear you object, particularly if it is sustained, that you are trying to hide something from them–probably the truth. As I’ve said, this can garner juror resentment.
Motions in limine are great fun to write if you are an associate. I say this only partly in jest because they actually can be both interesting and game-changing, if done well. Plus they help young lawyers learn to use and argue the rules of evidence in a way you never learn them in law school or when studying for the bar.
Now, if we take this kind of pretrial strategic thinking to a higher level, there are even more subtle considerations to consider and decisions to decide. One involves comparing a motion in limine with a different kind of document called a trial brief. A trial brief is often a concise memorandum of points and authorities that delineate an important narrow issue and identify and apply authorities to persuade (under the guise of education) the court to adopt your favored position. It is also common for parties to file a single trial brief, which provides the court with a roadmap of all of the issues, the expected evidence, and how they should be decided. I’m referring in this post to the kind of brief that addresses only a discrete issue or cluster of issues.
In general, motions in limine focus on evidentiary issues and trial briefs on issues of law, such as how the jury should ultimately be instructed. But the difference isn’t always clear. For example, if you expect a massive argument over a specific jury instruction, it might be appropriate to separately file a trial brief to persuade the judge that only your instruction is appropriate. But this debate can also give rise to evidentiary issues. If certain areas of inquiry would be irrelevant or inappropriate if the judge ultimately sides with the position in your trial brief, it may be wise to also file a motion in limine to urge the court to limit potential unwanted or damaging evidence.
Finally, the timing of trial briefs is another consideration. They can be filed before trial, along with any motions in limine, or you can prepare and hold–do not file–a “pocket” brief until the issue is “ripe” for adjudication. When, in the context of an argument, the judge asks, “Counsel, do you have any authority on that?” “As a matter of fact,” you say, “we do!”
Three additional points about motions in limine. First, lawyers have greatly overused them; some judges consider such motions to be an irritant. Be wary of this and save them for issues that really merit advance consideration by the judge. Then brief these issues well–don’t just assume because you raise an issue and cite an evidence code section that you’ll prevail. It’s vastly better to select a very few key evidence issues and brief each thoroughly, than to file a motion on every anticipated shard of evidence. If the issue doesn’t merit serious briefing, it probably doesn’t merit a motion.
Second, it is an absolute waste of everybody’s time to file “obvious” motions, which simply repeat well-established evidence rules. For example, most trial judges and lawyers know about the prohibition of evidence of insurance coverage. Why waste paper and time making a motion on such an obvious point.
Third, most jurisdictions require parties to “meet and confer” before filing motions in limine to see if the issue can be resolved among the lawyers. Even if you are in a jurisdiction that does not have such a rule, there is no reason not to meet and confer and try to resolve the issue before you spend your client’s money needlessly.
Both motions in limine and trial briefs can significantly impact the outcome of a trial. By resolving evidentiary issues that the jury never needs to know about, or educating the judge about how she should rule on important legal issues, these documents can effectively shape how a case is tried. Don’t be afraid to use these tools, but use them wisely and strategically.