Ancient Truths

David Sackett, in some paternity disputes called the “father of evidence-based medicine,” supposedly once claimed that:

“Half of what you’ll learn in medical school will be shown to be either dead wrong or out of date within five years of your graduation; the trouble is that nobody can tell you which half–so the most important thing to learn is how to learn on your own.”

See Ivan Oransky, “So how often does medical consensus turn out to be wrong?Retraction Watch (July 11, 2011). Sackett’s meta-statement was itself certainly not “evidence based,” but his point is well taken. Time ultimately erodes the authority of the truthiest sounding claims to medical knowledge. Sara Teichholtz, “The Differential: Half of What You’re Learning is Wrong,” (Dec. 14, 2013). Only lawyers and theologians would think that a statement in an old document or text, once authenticated, has some claim on us as the “truth.”

The Federal Rules of Evidence provide an exception to the rule against hearsay for statements made in ancient documents, those at least twenty years old. Rule 803(16). In 2015, the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure proposed retiring the ancient document hearsay rule.[1] The exception created for documents authenticated as “ancient” (> 20 years old) is so inimical to the truth-finding function of trials, that courts strain to avoid finding the documents “authenticated.” See, e.g., Kalamazoo River Study Group v. Menasha Corp., 228 F.3d 648 (6th Cir. 2000).

The proposal to abolish this dangerous exception to the rule against hearsay has engendered resistance from some quarters over its ability to eliminate otherwise admissible evidence in cases involving long-past events, such as environmental or occupational disease litigation. The resistance, however, is misguided.  The Committee’s proposal would not affect the authenticity presumption of an “ancient document,” and such documents could still be used to show state of mind, intention, motive, or notice. If the asserted statement in the old document is actually true, then there is likely much more recent, robust evidence to support the statement. The rule as it now stands is capable of a great deal of mischief.  The fact that a document has survived intact in a place where one would expect to find it may add to its presumptive authenticity, but in many technical, scientific, and medical contexts, the “ancient” provenance actually makes the content likely to be false. Technical and scientific facts and opinions have changed too quickly to endorse statements simply because of they were written down somewhere, over 20 years ago. SeeTime to Retire Ancient Documents As Hearsay Exception” (Aug. 23, 2015).

Although many in the legal academy have voiced opposition to the proposal[2], one law professor, Daniel Capra, has astutely observed that we will soon have a flood of easily authenticated documents of doubtful veracity, called websites, and other electronic documents, which have reached the age of evidentiary majority. Daniel J. Capra, “Electronically Stored Information and the Ancient Documents Exception to the Hearsay Rule: Fix It Before People Find Out About It,” 17 Yale J.L. & Tech 1 (2015). The truth of a proposition requires more than the lapse of 20 years since some nincompoop wrote it down.


[1] Preliminary Draft of Proposed Amendments to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence (Aug. 2015); See also Debra Cassens Weiss, “Federal judiciary considers dumping ‘ancient documents’ rule,” ABA Journal Online (Aug. 19, 2015).

[2] Peter Nicolas, “Saving an Old Friend From Extinction: A Proposal to Amend Rather Than to Abrogate the Ancient Documents Hearsay Exception,” 63 UCLA L. Rev. Disc. 172 (2015).

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