For your delectation and delight, desultory dicta on the law of delicts.

Judge Bernstein’s Criticism of Rule 703 of the Federal Rules of Evidence

August 30th, 2016

Federal Rule of Evidence Rule 703 addresses the bases of expert witness opinions, and it is a mess. The drafting of this Rule is particularly sloppy. The Rule tells us, among other things, that:

“[i]f experts in the particular field would reasonably rely on those kinds of facts or data in forming an opinion on the subject, they need not be admissible for the opinion to be admitted.”

This sentence of the Rule has a simple grammatical and logical structure:

If A, then B;

where A contains the concept of reasonable reliance, and B tells us the consequence that the relied upon material need not be itself admissible for the opinion to be admissible.

But what happens if the expert witness has not reasonably relied upon certain facts or data; i.e., ~A?  The conditional statement as given does not describe the outcome in this situation. We are not told what happens when an expert witness’s reliance in the particular field is unreasonable.  ~A does not necessarily imply ~B. Perhaps the drafters meant to write:

B if and only if A.

But the drafters did not give us the above rule, and they have left judges and lawyers to make sense of their poor grammar and bad logic.

And what happens when the reliance material is independently admissible, say as a business record, government report, and first-person observation?  May an expert witness rely upon admissible facts or data, even when a reasonable expert would not do so? Again, it seems that the drafters were trying to limit expert witness reliance to some rule of reason, but by tying reliance to the admissibility of the reliance material, they managed to conflate two separate notions.

And why is reliance judged by the expert witness’s particular field?  Fields of study and areas of science and technology overlap. In some fields, it is common place for putative experts to rely upon materials that would not be given the time of day in other fields. Should we judge the reasonableness of homeopathic healthcare providers’ reliance by the standards of reasonableness in homeopathy, such as it is, or should we judge it by the standards of medical science? The answer to this rhetorical question seems obvious, but the drafters of Rule 703 introduced a Balkanized concept of science and technology by introducing the notion of the expert witness’s “particular field.” The standard of Rule 702 is “knowledge” and “helpfulness,” both of which concepts are not constrained by “particular fields.”

And then Rule 703 leaves us in the dark about how to handle an expert witness’s reliance upon inadmissible facts or data. According to the Rule, “the proponent of the opinion may disclose [the inadmissible facts or data] to the jury only if their probative value in helping the jury evaluate the opinion substantially outweighs their prejudicial effect. And yet, disclosing inadmissible facts or data would always be highly prejudicial because they represent facts and data that the jury is forbidden to consider in reaching its verdict.  Nonetheless, trial judges routinely tell juries that an expert witness’s opinion is no better than the facts and data on which the opinion is based.  If the facts and data are inadmissible, the jury must disregard them in its fact finding; and if an expert witness’s opinion is based upon facts and data that are to be disregarded, then the expert witness’s opinion must be disregarded as well. Or so common sense and respect for the trial’s truth-finding function would suggest.

The drafters of Rule 703 do not shoulder all the blame for the illogic and bad results of the rule. The judicial interpretation of Rule 703 has been sloppy, as well. The Rule’s “plain language” tells us that “[a]n expert may base an opinion on facts or data in the case that the expert has been made aware of or personally observed.”  So expert witnesses should be arriving at their opinions through reliance upon facts and data, but many expert witnesses rely upon others’ opinions, and most courts seem to be fine with such reliance.  And the reliance is often blind, as when medical clinicians rely upon epidemiologic opinions, which in turn are based upon data from studies that the clinicians themselves are incompetent to interpret and critique.

The problem of reliance, as contained within Rule 703, is deep and pervasive in modern civil and criminal trials. In the trial of health effect claims, expert witnesses rely upon epidemiologic and toxicologic studies that contain multiple layers of hearsay, often with little or no validation of the trustworthiness of many of those factual layers. The inferential methodologies are often obscure, even to the expert witnesses, and trial counsel are frequently untrained and ill prepared to expose the ignorance and mistakes of the expert witnesses.

Back in February 2008, I presented at an ALI-ABA conference on expert witness evidence about the problems of Rule 703.[1] I laid out a critique of Rule 703, which showed that the Rule permitted expert witnesses to rely upon “castles in the air.” A distinguished panel of law professors and judges seemed to agree; at least no one offered a defense of Rule 703.

Shortly after I presented at the ALI-ABA conference, Professor Julie E. Seaman published an insightful law review in which she framed the problems of rule 703 as constitutional issues.[2] Encouraged by Professor Seaman’s work, I wrote up my comments on Rule 703 for an ABA publication,[3] and I have updated those comments in the light of subsequent judicial opinions,[4] as well as the failure of the Third Edition of the Reference Manual of Scientific Evidence to address the problems.[5]


Judge Mark I. Bernstein is a trial court judge for the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. I never tried a case before Judge Bernstein, who has announced his plans to leave the Philadelphia bench after 29 years of service,[6] but I had heard from some lawyers (on both sides of the bar) that he was a “pro-plaintiff” judge. Some years ago, I sat next to him on a CLE panel on trial evidence, at which he disparaged judicial gatekeeping,[7] which seemed to support his reputation. The reality seems to be more complex. Judge Bernstein has shown that he can be a critical consumer of complex scientific evidence, and an able gatekeeper under Pennsylvania’s crazy quilt-work pattern of expert witness law. For example, in a hotly contested birth defects case involving sertraline, Judge Bernstein held a pre-trial evidentiary hearing and looked carefully at the proffered testimony of Michael D. Freeman, a chiropractor and self-styled “forensic epidemiologist, and Robert Cabrera, a teratologist. Applying a robust interpretation of Pennsylvania’s Frye rule, Judge Bernstein excluded Freeman and Cabrera’s proffered testimony, and entered summary judgment for defendant Pfizer, Inc. Porter v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., 2016 WL 614572 (Phila. Cty. Ct. Com. Pl.). SeeDemonstration of Frye Gatekeeping in Pennsylvania Birth Defects Case” (Oct. 6, 2015).

And Judge Bernstein has shown that he is one of the few judges who takes seriously Rule 705’s requirement that expert witnesses produce their relied upon facts and data at trial, on cross-examination. In Hansen v. Wyeth, Inc., Dr. Harris Busch, a frequent testifier for plaintiffs, glibly opined about the defendant’s negligence.  On cross-examination, he adverted to the volumes of depositions and documents he had reviewed, but when defense counsel pressed, the witness was unable to produce and show exactly what he had reviewed. After the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, Judge Bernstein set the verdict aside because of the expert witness’s failure to comply with Rule 705. Hansen v. Wyeth, Inc., 72 Pa. D. & C. 4th 225, 2005 WL 1114512, at *13, *19, (Phila. Ct. Common Pleas 2005) (granting new trial on post-trial motion), 77 Pa. D. & C. 4th 501, 2005 WL 3068256 (Phila. Ct. Common Pleas 2005) (opinion in support of affirmance after notice of appeal).

In a recent law review article, Judge Bernstein has issued a withering critique of Rule 703. See Hon. Mark I. Bernstein, “Jury Evaluation of Expert Testimony Under the Federal Rules,” 7 Drexel L. Rev. 239 (2015). Judge Bernstein is clearly dissatisfied with the current approach to expert witnesses in federal court, and he lays almost exclusive blame on Rule 703 and its permission to hide the crucial facts, data, and inferential processes from the jury. In his law review article, Judge Bernstein characterizes Rules 703 and 705 as empowering “the expert to hide personal credibility judgments, to quietly draw conclusions, to individually decide what is proper evidence, and worst of all, to offer opinions without even telling the jury the facts assumed.” Id. at 264. Judge Bernstein cautions that the subversion of the factual predicates for expert witnesses’ opinions under Rule 703 has significant, untoward consequences for the court system. Not only are lawyers allowed to hire professional advocates as expert witnesses, but the availability of such professional witnesses permits and encourages the filing of unnecessary litigation. Id. at 286. Hear hear.

Rule 703’s practical consequence of eliminating the hypothetical question has enabled the expert witness qua advocate, and has up-regulated the trial as a contest of opinions and opiners rather than as an adversarial procedure that is designed to get at the truth. Id. at 266-67. Without having access to real, admissible facts and data, the jury is forced to rely upon proxies for the truth: qualifications, demeanor, and courtroom poise, all of which fail the jury and the system in the end.

As a veteran trial judge, Judge Bernstein makes a persuasive case that the non-disclosure permitted under Rule 703 is not really curable under Rule 705. Id. at 288.  If the cross-examination inquiry into reliance material results in the disclosure of inadmissible facts, then judges and the lawyers must deal with the charade of a judicial instruction that the identification of the inadmissible facts is somehow “not for the truth.” Judge Bernstein argues, as have many others, that this “not for the truth” business is an untenable fiction, either not understood or ignored by jurors.

Opposing counsel, of course, may ask for an elucidation of the facts and data relied upon, but when they consider the time and difficulty involved in cross-examining highly experienced, professional witnesses, opposing counsel usually choose to traverse the adverse opinion by presenting their own expert witness’s opinion rather than getting into nettlesome details and risking looking foolish in front of the jury, or even worse, allowing the highly trained adverse expert witness to run off at the mouth.

As powerful as Judge Bernstein’s critique of Rule 703 is, his analysis misses some important points. Lawyers and judges have other motives for not wanting to elicit underlying facts and data: they do not want to “get into the weeds,” and they want to avoid technical questions of valid inference and quality of data. Yet sometimes the truth is in the weeds. Their avoidance of addressing the nature of inference, as well as facts and data, often serves to make gatekeeping a sham.

And then there is the problem that arises from the lack of time, interest, and competence among judges and jurors to understand the technical details of the facts and data, and inferences therefrom, which underlie complex factual disputes in contemporary trials. Cross examination is reduced to the attempt to elicit “sound bites” and “cheap shots,” which can be used in closing argument. This approach is common on both sides of the bar, in trials before judges and juries, and even at so-called Daubert hearings. See David E. Bernstein & Eric G. Lasker,“Defending Daubert: It’s Time to Amend Federal Rule of Evidence 702,” 57 William & Mary L. Rev. 1, 32 (2015) (“Rule 703 is frequently ignored in Daubert analyses”).

The Rule 702 and 703 pretrial hearing is an opportunity to address the highly technical validity questions, but even then, the process is doomed to failure unless trial judges make adequate time and adopt an attitude of real intellectual curiosity to permit a proper exploration of the evidentiary issues. Trial lawyers often discover that a full exploration is technical and tedious, and that it pisses off the trial judge. As much as judges dislike having to serve as gatekeepers of expert witness opinion testimony, they dislike even more having to assess the reasonableness of individual expert witness’s reliance upon facts and data, especially when this inquiry requires a deep exploration of the methods and materials of each relied upon study.

In favor of something like Rule 703, Bernstein’s critique ignores that there are some facts and data that will never be independently admissible. Epidemiologic studies, with their multiple layers of hearsay, come to mind.

Judge Bernstein, as a reformer, is wrong to suggest that the problem is solely in hiding the facts and data from the jury. Rules 702 and 703 march together, and there are problems with both that require serious attention. See David E. Bernstein & Eric G. Lasker,“Defending Daubert: It’s Time to Amend Federal Rule of Evidence 702,” 57 William & Mary L. Rev. 1 (2015); see alsoOn Amending Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence” (Oct. 17, 2015).

And we should remember that the problem is not solely with juries and their need to see the underlying facts and data. Judges try cases too, and can butcher scientific inference with any help from a lay jury. Then there is the problem of relied upon opinions, discussed above. And then there is the problem of unreasonable reliance of the sort that juries cannot discern even if they see the underlying, relied upon facts and data.

[1] Schachtman, “Rule 703 – The Problem Child of Article VII”; and “The Effective Presentation of Defense Expert Witnesses and Cross-examination of Plaintiffs’ Expert Witnesses”; at the ALI-ABA Course on Opinion and Expert Witness Testimony in State and Federal Courts (February 14-15, 2008).

[2] See Julie E. Seaman, “Triangulating Testimonial Hearsay: The Constitutional Boundaries of Expert Opinion Testimony,” 96 Georgetown L.J. 827 (2008).

[3]  Nathan A. Schachtman, “Rule of Evidence 703—Problem Child of Article VII,” 17 Proof 3 (Spring 2009).

[4]RULE OF EVIDENCE 703 — Problem Child of Article VII” (Sept. 19, 2011)

[5] SeeGiving Rule 703 the Cold Shoulder” (May 12, 2012); “New Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence Short Shrifts Rule 703,” (Oct. 16, 2011).

[6] Max Mitchell, “Bernstein Announces Plan to Step Down as Judge,” The Legal Intelligencer (July 29, 2016).

[7] See Schachtman, “Court-Appointed Expert Witnesses,” for Mealey’s Judges & Lawyers in Complex Litigation, Class Actions, Mass Torts, MDL and the Monster Case Conference, in West Palm Beach, Florida (November 8-9, 1999). I don’t recall Judge Bernstein’s exact topic, but I remember he criticized the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Blum v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, 534 Pa. 97, 626 A.2d 537 ( 1993), which reversed a judgment for plaintiffs, and adopted what Judge Bernstein derided as a blending of Frye and Daubert, which he called Fraubert. Judge Bernstein had presided over the Blum trial, which resulted in the verdict for plaintiffs.

Excited Utterance Podcast Series on Evidence Law

August 25th, 2016

As a graduate student, I was impressed by the extent to which scholars traveled to other schools to present draft papers and obtain feedback from other faculties and graduate students.  As a student, these presentations were interesting opportunities to engage with leading scholars and learn from their new ideas, as well as their mistakes.  Law school faculties back in the 1970s seemed like a much less collegial community of scholars, who rarely shared their ideas before publication, and thus did not receive the benefit of feedback from other scholars.

The isolation of legal scholarship has been mitigated in good law schools with the introduction of invited lectures and presentations, often at weekly seminars or luncheons.  These meetings can be exciting and inspiring, but obviously participation is limited, and the financial and travel time restraints can be burdensome.

Edward Cheng, who teaches evidence and related subjects at Vanderbilt Law School, has introduced an interesting idea: scholarly podcasts on legal topics in his field of interest. Professor Cheng’s stated hope is that he can produce and provide podcasts, on scholarly topics in the law of evidence, which replicate the faculty seminar for a broader audience.

To be sure, there have been podcasts about specific legal cases, such as the famously successful “Undisclosed” podcast on the Adnan Syed case, which can honestly share in the credit in helping expose corruption and dishonesty in the prosecution of Mr. Syed, and in helping Mr. Syed obtain a new trial. Professor Cheng’s planned podcast series, “Excited Utterance: The Evidence and Proof Podcast,” will be on evidentiary topics more of interest to legal scholars, students, and practitioners. His stated goal is to focus on legal scholarship on evidence law and “to provide a weekly virtual workshop in the world of evidence throughout the academic year” to a broader audience, more efficiently than the sporadic visiting lectures that any one school can sponsor on evidentiary topics.

The project seems worth the effort in theory, and we will see what it produces in practice. The fall 2016 schedule for Cheng’s Excited Utterance podcasts is set out below; and the first one, by Daniel Chapra, is already available at iTunes, and at the Excited Utterance website.

Daniel Capra, “Electronically Stored Information and the Ancient Documents Exception” (Aug. 22, 2016)

Michael Pardo, “Group Agency and Legal Proof, or Why the Jury Is An It” (Aug. 29, 2016)

Mary Fan, “Justice Visualized” (Sept. 5, 2016)

Sachin Pandya, “The Constitutional Accuracy of Legal Presumptions” (Sept. 12, 2016)

Christopher Slobogin, “Gatekeeping Science” (Sept. 19, 2016)

Mark Spottswood, “Unraveling the Conjunction Paradox” (Sept. 26, 2016)

Deryn Strange, “Memory Errors in Alibi Generation” (Oct. 3, 2016)

Sandra Guerra Thompson, “Cops in Lab Coats” (Oct. 10, 2016)

Maggie Wittlin, “Hindsight Evidence” (Oct. 17, 2016)

Stephanos Bibas, “Designing Plea Bargaining from the Ground Up” (Oct. 24, 2016)

Erin Murphy, “Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA” (Oct. 31, 2016)

Pamela R. Metzger, “Confrontation as a Rule of Production” (Nov. 7, 2016)

Nancy S. Marder, “Juries and Lay Participation: American Perspectives and Global Trends” (Nov. 14, 2016)

Jay Koehler, “Testing for Accuracy in the Forensic Sciences” (Nov. 21, 2016)

Art Historian Expert Testimony

August 15th, 2016

Art appraisal and authentication is sometimes held out as a non-technical and non-scientific area of expertise, and as such, not subject to rigorous testing.[1] But to what extent is this simply excuse mongering for an immature field of study? The law has seen way too much of this sort of rationalization in criminal forensic studies.[2] If an entire field of learning suffers from unreliability because of its reliance upon subjective methodologies, lack of rigor, inability or unwillingness to use measurements, failure to eliminate biases through blinding, and the like, then do expert witnesses in this field receive a “pass” under Rule 702, simply because they are doing reasonably well compared with their professional colleagues?

In the movie Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollack, the late Thomas Hoving was interviewed about the authenticity of a painting claimed to have been “painted” by Jackson Pollack. Hoving “authoritatively,” and with his typical flamboyance, averred that the disputed painting was not a Pollack because the work “did not sing to me like a Pollack.” Hoving did not, however, attempt to record the notes he heard; nor did Hoving speak to what key Pollack usually painted in.

In a recent case of defamation and tortious interference with prospective business benefit, a plaintiff sued over the disparagement of a painting’s authenticity and provenance. As a result of the defendants’ statements that the painting at issue was not created by Peter M. Doig, auction houses refused to sell the painting held by plaintiff. In litigation, the plaintiff proffered an expert witness who opined that the painting was, in fact, created by Doig. The defendants challenged plaintiff’s expert witness as not reliable or relevant under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Fletcher v. Doig, 13 C 3270, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95081 (N.D. Ill. July 21, 2016).

Peter Bartlow, the plaintiff’s expert witness on authenticity, was short on academic credentials. He had gone to college, and finished only one year of graduate study in art history. Bartlow did, however, have 40 years in experience in appraisal and authentication. Fletcher, at *3-4. Beyond qualifications, the defendants complained that Bartlow’s method was

(1) invented for the case,

(2) was too “generic” to establish authenticity, and

(3) failed to show that any claimed generic feature was unique to the work of the artist in question, Peter M. Doig.

The trial court rebuffed this challenge by noting that Peter Bartlow did not have to be an expert specifically in Doig’s work. Fletcher at *7. Similarly, the trial court rejected the defendants’ suggestion that the disputed work must exhibit “unique” features of Doig’s ouevre. Bartlow had made a legally sufficient case for his opinions based upon a qualitative analysis of 45 acknowledged works, using specific qualitative features of 11 known works. Id. At *10. Specifically, Bartlow compared types of paint, similarities in styles, shapes and positioning, and “repeated lineatures” by superimposing lines from known paintings to the questioned ones. Id. With respect to the last of these approaches, the trial court found that Bartlow’s explanation that the approach of superimposing lines to show similarity was simply a refinement of methods commonly used by art appraisers.

By comparison with Thomas Hoving’s subjective auditory methodology, as explained in Who the Fuck, Bartlow’s approach was positively brilliant, even if the challenged methodologies left much to be desired. For instance, Bartlow compared one disputed painting with 45 or so paintings of accepted provenance. No one tested Bartlow’s ability, blinded to provenance, to identify true and false positives of Doig paintings. SeeThe Eleventh Circuit Confuses Adversarial and Methodological Bias, Manifestly Erroneously” (June 6, 2015); see generally Christopher Robertson & Aaron Kesselheim, Blinding as a Solution to Bias: Strengthening Biomedical Science, Forensic Science, and Law (2016).

Interestingly, the Rule 702 challenges in Fletcher were in a case slated to be tried by the bench. The trial court thus toasted the chestnut that trial courts have even greater latitude in admitting expert witness opinion testimony in bench trials, in which “the usual concerns of [Rule 702] – keeping unreliable testimony from the jury – are not present.” Fletcher at *3 (citing Metavante Corp. v. Emigrants Savings Bank, 619 F.3d 648, 670 (7th Cir. 2010)). Citing Seventh Circuit precedent, the trial court, in Fletcher, asserted that the need to rule on admissibility before trial was lessened in a bench trial. Id. (citing In re Salem, 465 F.3d 767, 777 (7th Cir. 2006)). The courts that have taken this position have generally failed to explain why the standard for granting or denying a Rule 702 challenge should be different in a bench trial. Clearly, a bench trial can be just as much a waste of time, money, and energy as a jury trial. Even more clearly, judges can be, and are, snookered by misleading expert witness opinions, and they are also susceptible to their own cognitive biases and the false allure of unreliable opinion testimony, built upon invalid inferences. Men and women do not necessarily see more clearly when wearing black robes, but they can achieve some measure of objectivity by explaining and justifying their gatekeeping opinions in writing, subject to public review, comment, and criticism.

[1] See, e.g. Lees v. Carthage College, 714 F.3d 516, 525 (7th Cir. 2013) (holding that an expert witness’s testimony on premises security involved non-scientific expertise and knowledge that did “not easily admit of rigorous testing and replication”).

[2] See, e.g., National Academies of Science, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (2009).