In a dramatic reversal of a ruling I reported on last year, the High Court of Australia has overturned the convictions of two men because the judge in their trial slept through much of the proceedings.
An appellate court had ruled 2-1 that although the judge's tendency to doze off was "regrettable," especially given the distracting effect of his snoring, any error was harmless. For a judge to be "constantly attentive," the court ruled, "is not a fundamental requirement."
The High Court disagreed. While it is certainly not true that "every minor distraction, inattention, sign of fatigue or even momentary sleepiness constitutes a failure of the judicial function," it wrote, "[i]n this case there was a miscarriage of justice." The court said its main concern was the effect the many bench naps might have had on the jury, citing evidence that jurors were distracted by the judge's behavior and snoring, and that some had "found his behaviour amusing and even emulated it."
There was also a substantial question whether jurors had paid enough attention to the defendants' case, the court found, noting that the trial judge had slept through much of that, too.
The two defendants, who had faced at least nine years in jail each on drug charges, will now be granted a new trial, this time presumably before a judge who does not suffer from sleep apnea.