Rule 272 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure requires objections to the charge to be made before the charge is read to the jury. All objections not timely made are waived. Can a trial court set an earlier deadline for charge objections? That was the issue before the Texas Supreme Court inKing Fisher Marine Service, LP v. Tamez, 2014 Tex. LEXIS 776 (Tex. Aug. 29, 2014).
In that case, after the close of the evidence, the morning after the formal charge conference and minutes before the trial court would read the charge to the jury, the defendant made a last-minute objection to the charge and proposed an instruction.
The trial court refused the instruction “mainly because it’s not timely,” adding that “we needed to have all this stuff done and in by yesterday.” The defendant argued that the trial court abused its discretion by disallowing the proposed instruction. The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that the trial court afforded the defendant ample opportunity to present its proposed instruction and that refusing the instruction on the morning that the charge was to be read was not an abuse of discretion.
The Supreme Court agreed, holding that nothing in Rule 272 prohibits a trial court from shortening the deadline for charge objections as long as the deadline affords the parties a reasonable time to inspect and object to the charge.
The Court found the time afforded was reasonable because the trial court did not limit the time the parties had to review the charge and did not end the formal charge conference until the parties had exhausted their objections.
While it affirmed the trial court, the Supreme Court cautioned that a court’s interest in managing its docket, minimizing impositions on jurors’ time, and preserving the clarity that comes from bright-line deadlines, should be balanced against the trial judge’s ultimate responsibility to provide the jury with a legally correct charge.
Acknowledging that “an objection that may seem obvious to an appellate court perusing a cold record may occur to battle-weary trial counsel only when the fog of war has lifted after a long day in the courtroom, or simply after a decent night’s sleep,” the Court warned against placing scheduling above the integrity of the charge.
In a vigorous dissent, Justice Guzman, joined by Chief Justice Hecht, Justice Green, and Justice Devine, concluded that a trial court may not elevate docket management above the express language of Rule 272 by denying an objection to the jury charge solely because the attorney raised it after the charge conference, but before the court read the charge to the jury.