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

Quackers & Cheese – Trump Picks Kennedy to Study Vaccine Safety

January 11th, 2017

Science necessarily involves a willingness to follow evidence to whatever conclusions are warranted, if conclusions properly can be had. When it comes to vaccination conspiracies, Democrats have it in their political DNA to distrust pharmaceutical companies that research, develop, and manufacture vaccines. The current Republican party, which has been commandeered by theocrats and populists, see vaccination as federal government aggrandizement, and resist vaccination policy as contrary to God’s will. Science is often the loser in the cross-fire.

And so we now have the public spectacle of watching the left and the right join in similar scientific apostasies. Consider how both McCain and Obama both suggested that vaccines and autism were related in the 2008 election. (Although both candidates were to some extent slippery in their suggestions, which might have been appropriate given how little they knew about the controversies.) And consider Michelle Bachmann was converted to a similar view about the HPV vaccine on the basis of a woman’s anecdote about her child. And then on the far left, you have the uplifting story of Robert F. Kennedy Jr, and his brief on how thimerosal supposedly causes autism.

So it should be no surprise that Donald Trump, a Birther, a Mirther, a mid-night Twitterer, should embrace the anti-vaccination movement. Trump has made it clear that he rejects evidence-based policy, and so no one should expect him to embrace a scientific policy that is driven by high-quality scientific evidence. According to Kennedy, Trump wants Kennedy to head up a “commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” Michael D. Shear, Maggie Haberman & Pam Belluckjan, “Anti-Vaccine Activist Says Trump Wants Him to Lead Panel on Immunization Safety,” N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2017); Domenico Montanaro, “Despite The Facts, Trump Once Again Embraces Vaccine Skeptics,” National Public Radio (Jan. 10, 2017).

Who needs the National Academy of Medicine when you can put a yutzball lawyer in charge of a “commission”?

Some of the media refer to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a vaccine skeptic, but their terminology is grossly inaccurate and misleading. Kennedy is a vaccine denier; he has engaged in a vitriolic campaign against the safety and efficacy of vaccines. He has aligned himself with the most extreme deniers of science, medicine, and public safety, including the likes of Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy. Kennedy has not merely engaged hyperbolic rhetoric against vaccines, he has used his radio show on the lawsuit industry’s Ring of Fire, to advance his campaign against public health as well as to shill for the lawsuit industry on other issues. SeeRFK, Jr.: Science Shows That Autism — Mercury Link Exists – PT. ½,” Ring of Fire (Mar 8, 2011).

Kennedy should not be characterized as a skeptic, when he is a shrill ideologue, for whom science has no method that he is bound to respect. Back in July 2005, Kennedy published an article, “Deadly Immunity,” in both Rolling Stone and on Slate’s website. The article was a hateful screed against Big Pharma and government health agencies for an alleged conspiracy to hide the autism risks of thimerosal preservatives in vaccines. Several years later, on January 16, 2011, Salon retracted the article. See” entry in Wikipedia. See also Phil Plait, “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Anti-Vaxxer,” Slate (June 5 2013) (describing Kennedy as a full-blown anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist); Rahul K. Parikh, M.D., “Inside the vaccine-and-autism scare: A pediatrician traces the rise of the anti-vaccine movement that falsely linked thimerosal with autism and turned parents away from the most lifesaving medicine in history,” Salon (Sept. 22, 2008); Keith Kloor,Is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Anti-Science?” Discover Magazine (June 1, 2013); Steven Novella, “RFK Jr.s Autism Conspiracy Theory,” (Jun 20 2007).

Back in 2008, President Obama apparently considered Robert Kennedy for a cabinet-level position, but on sober reflection, thought better of it. See Steven Novella, “Politics and Science – The RFK Jr. Test,” (Nov. 07 2008). The Wall Street Journal, joined by many others, are now urging Trump to think harder and better about the issue, perhaps with some evidence as well. See Alex Berezow & Hank Campbell, “Ignore Anti-Vaccine Hysteria, Mr. Trump: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s conspiracy theories have no place in the White House,” Wall Street J. (Jan. 10, 2017).

More Ancient Document Epistemic Nihilism

December 30th, 2016

Man-Bats and Woman-Bats have populated the moon. It’s a fact.

Man- and Woman-bats playing at a lunar resort in 1835

As Daniel Capra has pointed out, newspapers can qualify for ancient documents and an exception to the rule against hearsay. Daniel J. Capra, “Electronically Stored Information and the Ancient Documents Exception to the Hearsay Rule Exception to the Hearsay Rule: Fix It Before People Find Out About It,” 17 Yale J.L. & Tech. 1 (2015). Newspaper articles older than 20 years, found in a place where you would expect them, such as the library or an on-line archive, are admissible for their truth. Ammons v. Dade City, Florida, 594 F. Supp. 1274, 1280 & n.8 (M.D. Fla. 1984) (citing pre-Federal Rules of Evidence case, Dallas County v. Commercial Union Insurance Co.,286 F.2d 388 (5th Cir.1961) (upholding admissibility of 58 year old newspaper articles to illustrate the scope of the ancient doctrine exception), and post-Rule cases, Bell v. Combined Registry Co.,397 F. Supp. 1241, 1246, 1247 (N.D.Ill. 1975) aff’d 536 F.2d 164 (7th Cir. 1976) (admitting newspaper articles into evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 803(16)).

In August 1835, The New York Sun ran a series of six articles that announced and described the discovery of interesting life forms on the moon, including unicorns, two-legged beavers, and most important man-bats. Also women-bats; all frolicking among giant crystals, flowing rivers, and lush vegetation. See Andrew Grant, “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, L.L.D, F.R.S, &c. at The Cape of Good Hope. [From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science] New York Sun (August 1835). 

Dr. Grant was described as a colleague of the then famous astronomer Sir John Herschel, but alas, the author noted by the Sun never existed. And the Edinburgh Journal of Science had long been defunct well before 1835, when the articles ran in the Sun. The articles are often attributed to a Cambridge-educated journalist, Richard Adams Locke. Locke supposedly was satirizing a popular religious writer, Reverend [sic] Thomas Dick, whose books described extraterrestrial life, including billions of inhabitants on the moon. Of course, clerics are used to making things up or accepting ancient documents as Gospel truth.

Today the incident is known as the Great Moon Hoax, which shows that fake news has been with us for a long time, perhaps forever. Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century (2008)

You may wonder whether the newspaper articles, found in places where you would expect them, could count as evidence in a courtroom today for man-bats. And woman-bats. The Sun has never retracted its series on Man-Bats, and the paper is now defunct.  There is no one alive today who had the opportunity to observe the lunar surface through a high-power telescope in the 1830s. Perhaps the opponent of this evidence could call an expert witness on hoaxes to offer an opinion that the series of articles were, in his opinion, a fabrication. Of course, many hoaxes persist. Maybe we should do away with a federal rule that would give life to these fantastic creatures.

Man-bat with lunar volcano in background circa 1835

Epistemic Nihilism and Ancient Documents

December 28th, 2016

This year, the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Evidence Rules proposed abrogation of the current “ancient documents” exception to the rule against hearsay, Rule 803(16). The proposal would, if adopted, become effective on December 1, 2017. See James A. King & Kirsten Fraser, “Say Goodbye to the ‘Ancient Documents’ Rule,A.B.A. Trial Evidence (Feb. 17, 2016).

Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, an old document, one over 20 years old, found in a place where one would expect to find it is treated as “authentic.” The finder of fact, judge or jury, may accept the document for what it purports to be simply because of its age and the manner of its discovery. Rule 901(b)(8). The Federal Rules, however, go further and permit the document, authenticated as a so-called “ancient document,” to be accepted for the truth of the statements it contains. Rule 803(16).

The rationale offered by the Deans of Evidence Law for this remarkable exception to the rule against hearsay is that old documents predate the legal controversies in which they might later be used in evidence, and that we might not have any other admissible evidence relevant to events in the distant past (greater than twenty years). “[A]ge affords assurance that the writing antedates the present controversy” wrote the Federal Rules of Evidence Advisory Committee. Fed. R. Evid. 803(16) advisory committee note.

Pithy and pathetic. The proffered rationale was not valid when Rule 803(16) was initially drafted or promulgated, and it is not valid today. Old does not suggest or equate with reliability, and the present controversy is not the only source of bias and error in past statements that happened to be put in writing.

First, contrary to the conjecture of the common law, many documents were and are created with a view to influence potential controversies decades later. Mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures of companies are often governed by documents that explicitly acknowledge controversies that could stretch into the distant future.

Second, sometimes the exact motivation to falsify, fabricate, or fudge is not exactly the same as later will exist in later litigation, but it is similar. So when a young patient misrepresents his smoking history to a physician, he may simply be trying to avoid a disapproving lecture from his healthcare provider. Years later when he has developed lung cancer, and he is trying to blame anything but smoking in a lawsuit, he will rely upon the distorted report of his tobacco consumption. Of course, in many other situations, the motive to create misleading documents will arise from the expectation of the possibility or probability of future litigation over intellectual or real property rights, insurance contracts, etc.

Professor Daniel J. Capra of Fordham Law School, for many years the Reporter to the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Evidence Rules, has not been shy about the slim to none justification for Rule 803(16). In a podcast interview with Professor Ed Cheng, Capra laid out the case against Rule 803(16), and its evanescent rationale. See Excited Utterance website, Daniel Capra, “Electronically Stored Information and the Ancient Documents Exception” (Aug. 22, 2016). Preliminary Draft of Proposed Amendments to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence (Aug. 2015). Capra had previously deconstructed Rule 803(16) in a law review article, with the usual scholarly apparatus of footnotes and review of historical sources. Daniel J. Capra, “Electronically Stored Information and the Ancient Documents Exception to the Hearsay Rule Exception to the Hearsay Rule: Fix It Before People Find Out About It,” 17 Yale J.L. & Tech. 1 (2015) [cited as Capra].

As Capra puts it, the justification for Rule 803(16) was “never very convincing in the first place,” Capra at 1, 5, and “a radical and irrational hearsay exception – an error of the common law,” Capra at 11. The equating of a document’s authenticity with the trustworthiness of assertions contained within the document is “curious.” Capra at 9. Curiously, Capra balks at complete abrogation.

The law professor may have well said that the rule is capricious. Still, on gossamer grounds, Capra argues to retain the rule for hardcopy old evidence, but to abandon it for electronically stored information. Capra seems to buckle under the prospect of abrogating a rule, which leads him to “split the baby.” As trenchant as Capra’s critique is, most of his defense of retaining the Rule for hardcopy documents is as unsupported as the original Rule 803(16). Capra, for instance, suggests that “the likelihood of finding a hardcopy document that is twenty years old and also relevant to an existing litigation is quite small.” Capra at 5. Capra offers no empirical evidence for this startling assertion. Similarly, Capra claims that Rule 803(16) is rarely invoked, but he cites only to the paucity of cases that discuss this exception. Capra at 12. Capra thus claims negative evidence for the infrequent use, but the failure of judges to discuss this rule in published decisions may well be the result mechanical simplicity of the rule, which rarely leads to post-trial motions and appeals.

The original rational for Rule 803(16), and a rallying cry for its retention, is the supposed necessity to have some evidence to make out the events of times past. The objectors, however, generally fail to make out their case that the residual hearsay rule (Rule 807), as well as the business record and other exceptions, do not accomplish the twin goals of providing some evidence of past events while maintaining some semblance of reliability in fact finding.

The Rule Committee’s proposal has been met with an organized campaign from the lawsuit industry, both through the self-aggrandizingly named American Association for Justice (AAJ) and many of its members.. A rough count suggests that about 82 out of 218 comments came from asbestos plaintiffs’ lawyers. See, e.g., Comment from Robert Jacobs, American Association of Justice; Comment from Larry Tawwater, American Association for Justice (AAJ); Testimony of Marc P. Weingarten; Comment from Robert Paul, NA; Comment from Mark Gallagher, NAComment from Joseph Rice, NA.

The lawsuit industry lawyers argue that they will be deprived of the ability to show scienter or knowledge of a risk in latent disease litigation in which disease outcomes are lagged several decades after first exposure. Their argument, however, misses the point that many documents in company files, while not admissible for their truth, will be evidence of “notice” of a potential hazard, and the documents would be admissible for “state of mind,” and not the truth, in any event. Given the changes in epistemic standards for establishing causation, it is unlikely that really ancient documents will move the fact finder any closer to the truth of the actual fact of asserted causation. SeeTime to Retire Ancient Documents As Hearsay Exception” (Aug. 23, 2015); “Ancient Truths” (May 5, 2016).

The asbestos plaintiffs’ lawyers thus argue that they would be deprived of important evidence such as the “Sumner Simpson” documents in asbestos cases. See Threadgill v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 928 F.2d 1366 (3d Cir. 1991). The plaintiffs’ argument rests upon an epistemic mistake. If knowledge is true, justified belief, then they do not need Rule 803(16) to show that the Sumner Simpson documents contain true statements; it is enough that they show that the authors believed what they said. In other words, the plaintiffs need only show that the documents reflect the declarants’ state of mind. Whether the statements are justified as true will require a complex mixture of current evidence about what health effects can be shown to be caused by the exposures of old, and what justifications were valid in today’s knowledge that were available and embraced by the declarants in the ancient documents.

Insurance coverage plaintiffs’ counsel have argued that they need Rule 803(16) to meet their burden of proof, and that insureds rely on both internal and external records. A policyholder’s internal records might include financial statements, annual reports, meeting minutes, check registers, contracts referencing insurance, insurance policies referencing other insurance policies, and/or accounting ledgers. Comment from Sherilyn Pastor, NA.

Most of the special pleading of these interest groups is wide of the mark. Old statements may be relevant and admissible for the speaker’s or reader’s statement of mind, and thus not hearsay. Old reliable documents can still be admitted under the residual exception, Rule 807, or under the business records exception, 803(6). Statements made in the making of contracts are operative facts of offer and acceptance, “speech acts,” and not offered for their truth.

The fact that a document is old may perhaps add to its authenticity, but in many technical, scientific, and medical contexts, the “ancient” provenance actually makes the content unlikely to be true. As such, the rule as now in effect is capable of much mischief and undermines accurate fact finding. The pace of change of technical and scientific opinion and understanding is too fast to indulge this exception that permits out-dated, false statements of doubtful validity to confuse the finder of fact. With respect to statements or claims to scientific knowledge, the Federal Rules of Evidence have evolved towards a system of evidence-based opinion, and away from naked opinion based upon the apparent authority or prestige of the speaker. Similarly, the age of the speaker or of the document provides no warrant for the truth of the document’s content. Of course, the statements in authenticated ancient documents remain relevant to the declarant’s state of mind, and nothing in the proposed amendment would affect this use of the document. As for the contested truth of the document’s content, there will usually be better, more recent, and sounder scientific evidence to support the ancient document’s statements if those statements are indeed correct. In the unlikely instance that more recent, more exacting evidence is unavailable, and the trustworthiness of the ancient document’s statements can be otherwise established, then the statements would probably be admissible pursuant to other exceptions to the rule against hearsay, as noted by the Committee. The proposed abrogation of this exception to the rule against hearsay should be welcomed; it is long overdue. And if it Capra is correct that ancient hardcopy rarely exists, and that the ancient document rule is rarely invoked, then abrogation cannot have the effect of defeating expectations and reliance upon this dubious mode of proof.

Of course, witnesses who are the declarants in the ancient documents may have died or moved away, but that is precisely why the law generally has statutes of limitations. When the law has generously created discovery rules, it should not then promulgate unreasonable, unreliable rules of evidence simply because it has extended the life on what otherwise would be stale claims.

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)