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Orthodox Jew has constitutional right to trial recess

A judge has broad discretion in managing the court’s calendar, so much so that you tend to stand up and take notice when a judge’s refusal to suspend a civil trial for two days is second-guessed on appeal.

Last week, Maryland’s highest court confronted the issue of whether the First Amendment requires a postponement of trial when a party and his attorney are barred from participating in proceedings because of religious beliefs.

The case involved the medical malpractice suit filed by Alexander Neustadter against Holy Cross Hospital of Silver Spring. Neustadter alleged that the hospital provided negligent medical care to his father, who died in 2003. 

A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge originally scheduled the case for a ten-day trial to begin on February 11, 2008.

The hospital subsequently requested a continuance and the trial judge rescheduled trial to start June 2, 2008.

This was a problem for Neustadter because he is an Orthodox Jew and the trial would overlap Shavous.

Shavous is religious holiday during which Orthodox Jews are prohibited from doing work. Moreover, their agents are likewise prohibited from doing work on their behalf.

With this conflict looming, a month before trial Neustadter requested a recess for June 9 and 10.

The hospital opposed the motion, claiming a conflict with its experts.

The trial judge denied the request for a recess and Neustadter stuck to his religious beliefs.

The trial went as scheduled on June 9 and 10 without Neustadter or his attorney being present. During those two days, the hospital presented its entire case-in-chief, which included the testimony of four expert witnesses and one of the doctors who treated Neustadter’s father.

Neustadter and his lawyer returned June 11 and that day the jury predictably returned a verdict for the hospital.

On appeal, Neustadter argued that his First Amendment right to the free exercise of his religion was violated by the trial judge’s denial of his request for the two-day recess.

Last Thursday, the Maryland Court of Appeals — the state’s highest court — agreed with Neustadter and granted him a new trial.

The court explained that it was “not unsympathetic to the need for trial courts to efficiently and effectively manage overflowing dockets and judicial resources. There is no evidence on the record, however, that suspending court proceedings for two days of a nine day trial would unreasonably or substantially burden the docket or squander resources.”

It observed that the trial judge could have taken a two-day break and resumed the proceedings on Wednesday, June 11, and still finished the trial by the end of the second week.

“Under the circumstances of the present case, the trial court abused its discretion by failing to make a reasonable accommodation, given the exceptional circumstance raised by the movant, whereby both he and his counsel were prohibited from participating in court proceedings for two days as a result of an asserted and uncontroverted religious tenet,” the court said. (Neustadter v. Holy Cross Hospital of Silver Spring)

Can anyone argue that this is not the right result? Government agencies at all levels regularly accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs.

That the trial judge would refuse and the hospital oppose Neustadter’s fundamentally reasonable request seems inexplicable.  

– Pat Murphy


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