The question of whether a spouse may be called as a witness in a civil case recently came up in the civil litigation surrounding the sexual assault allegations against comedian Bill Cosby. People often reflexively (and mistakenly) think that the issue is governed by the spousal privilege. In fact, in Massachusetts the spousal privilege is only applicable in criminal cases where one spouse is the defendant. M.G.L. c. 233 sec. 20, cl. 1. In those circumstances, the spousal privilege can be invoked by a witness to avoid being compelled to testify against his or her spouse. Com. v. Szerlong, 457 Mass. 858, 865 (2010). The testifying spouse can also choose to waive the privilege if the spouse wants to testify. Because the spousal privilege is applicable only in criminal proceedings, it is essentially irrelevant in civil litigation.
I attended a recent Federal Bar Association breakfast that was hosted by a thoughtful member of the federal bench in Massachusetts. He raised an important question about juror comprehension: Should each juror have a personal copy of the Court's jury instructions and read along with the judge throughout the charge?