COURTING CLIO: HISTORIANS UNDER OATH – Part 2

Continued from Part 1:

Court-Appointed Historians

One lawyer, Jonathan Martin, trained in historical scholarship in Princeton University, has argued that historian expert witness opinion testimony is both unavoidable and refractory to the protections of judicial gatekeeping.  Martin, Historians at the Gate:  Accommodating Expert Historical Testimony in Federal Courts.” 78 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 1518 (2003).  Mr. Martin acknowledges that historians are beholding to an objective methodology, but when they are in the employ of lawyers, historians abridge or abrogate their commitment to objectivity:

Just as scientific testimony must adhere to the scientific method so too must historical testimony adhere to the historical method.  Unfortunately, historians often neglect the conventional method of their craft when offering expert testimony.  Outside the courtroom, historians generally expect one another to formulate complex, nuanced, and balanced arguments that take into account all available evidence, including any countervailing evidence.  At trial, however, the pressures of the adversary system routinely push historians toward interpretations of the past that are compressed and categorical . . .  .  As a result, historians now frequently offer unreliable evidence.

Id. at 1521.  Mr. Martin proposes to remedy the frequent, unreliable testimony from historians by the routine appointment of court-appointed expert witnesses.

In passing, Mr. Martin notes that others have urged judicial gatekeeping, under Daubert or Frye, to address unreliable historian testimony, but he rejects gatekeeping of adversarial expert witnesses as insufficient.  Id. at 1522 n.23.  Given the dearth of reported cases of such gatekeeping, this rejection seems premature.  Perhaps more important, Mr. Martin, in his rush to advocate court-appointed historians, fails to address how and why historians’ opinions are different from the opinions of experts in other fields, which are successfully subjected to cross-examination and to reliability analysis.  Historians are not alone, certainly, in succumbing to the temptation to stray from objective methodology.  Mr. Martin is correct, however, in his implicit acknowledgment that historian opinion testimony warrants increased judicial scrutiny.

One way historians differ from other fields of objective study is that historical scholarship is perfused with argument.  In biomedical and physical sciences, the presentation of research is carefully and routinely segregated into hypothesis, materials and methods, findings, and discussion.  Research findings are neatly presented without inferences to conclusions.  If conclusions can be reliably reached from the research or experiment, the investigators present their conclusions, with appropriate qualifications and caveats, in the discussion sections of their writings.  Readers understand that the discussion section is often the least important part of a published article.

Lawyering is similarly segregated into proofs and argument.  The trial lawyers’ evidence, whether real, documentary, or testimonial, is confined to a portion of the trial open for proof of facts in issue.  The trial court has the responsibility to prevent argument, argumentative questioning, and argumentative testimony in the proof-phase of the trial.  Only in closing argument, may the trial lawyers urge inferences and conclusions that assist the trier of fact to resolve the factual disputes in the case.  To be sure, trial lawyers try and sometimes succeed in advancing their argument in the proof phase of trial, either by clever juxtaposition in presenting facts, by adducing opinions in carefully defined exceptions (such as character evidence), or by successfully evading the trial court’s supervision.

Historians, in their scholarship, may acknowledge an objective method in their fact-finding, but they are under no professional constraint to separate their fact-finding and argument.  Both popular and academic historical scholarship blend fact and opinion in a manner antithetical to the sciences.  The strength and persuasiveness of historical scholarship often turns on how well the historian creates a complex narrative of fact, inference, argument, and opinion.  And the greatest art is that which conceals itself.

The pervasive role of argument is a relatively small problem compared to the dominance and legitimacy of subjective perspective in historical narrative.  Historians write from a point of view.  Openly and honestly, they narrate historical facts and events from a Marxist, labor, feminist, free-market, religious, or other point of view.  Sometimes, their point of view is covert, but it still colors the narrative.  Importantly, the point of view is often not scientific in that the scholars would likely refuse to count any empirical evidence as refuting the “truth” of their narrative.

The problems and excesses of historian opinion testimony are thus not likely to be remedied by having a court-appointed historian weigh in on the issues.  Such a court-appointed historian would present a challenge to the parties, who would need to cross examine vigorously, and to the court, which would be obligated to review and pass on the reliability of its own expert witness.  The prestige and imprimatur of court appointment would just as likely thwart as promote the truth-finding function of trial.  The argumentativeness of historical narrative would escape meaningful detection and confrontation.  Court appointments of historian witnesses might well have the effect of ending the dispute, but not in a way that advances the just resolution of the parties’ claims.

Appointment of “neutral” expert witnesses may appear to be an attractive judicial strategy to a trial court faced with party expert witnesses that are “too extreme.”  Trial judges, especially in federal Multidistrict Litigation (MDL), hear capable advocates present highly credentialed expert witnesses.  Often the opinions of the parties’ expert witnesses are diametrically opposed in ways that do not let the trial court gauge their competing claims to truth.  If trial courts find assessment of these expert witnesses’ opinions to be difficult, juries are not likely to fare better.  In perplexity, judges may try to align themselves in the middle, and comfort themselves with the belief that the trust must lie somewhere between the parties’ polar views of the world.

In the silicone gel breast implant litigation, MDL 926, Judge Sam Pointer found himself in the “middle.”  He had refused Daubert challenges to plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, and stated that the parties’ expert witnesses were too extreme.  After Judge Jack Weinstein sua sponte raised the issue of court-appointed experts in breast implant cases, plaintiffs’ counsel petitioned Judge Pointer to appoint expert witnesses in all the federal cases.  Over defendants’ objections, Judge Pointer appointed a toxicologist, a rheumatologist, an immunologist, and an epidemiologist to address the plaintiffs’ claims that silicone causes systemic autoimmune and connective tissue diseases.  After a lengthy, expensive, complex proceeding, the MDL court-appointed expert witnesses filed reports and gave testimony that rejected plaintiffs’ claims.  Much to Judge Pointer’s surprise, but not the scientific community’s, the Court’s expert witnesses opined that plaintiffs’ claims were not supported and shown by sound scientific evidence.  Subsequently, a committee of the Institute of Medicine, of the National Academy of Sciences, reached the same exculpatory conclusion.

In MDL 926, the resort to court-appointed witnesses was necessitated by that trial court’s refusal or failure to engage in meaningful gatekeeping.  Remarkably, before the MDL Court even embarked upon the expensive detour of four Rule 706 witnesses, another federal court, employing expert witness advisors, reached the same conclusion in Daubert proceedings.  Hall v. Baxter, 947 F.Supp. 1387 (D. Or. 1996).  Judge Weinstein, sitting on all federal cases in the Eastern and Southern District of New York, had already granted partial summary judgment to defendants on plaintiffs’ systemic injury claims.  In re Breast Implant Cases, 942 F. Supp. 958 (E. & S.D.N.Y. 1996).  Rule 706 was used by plaintiffs’ counsel to prolong and protract the federal proceedings, in the hope that they would be saved by research that they were sponsoring through their expert witnesses.

In looking at disputes of historical scholarship, we can easily imagine that judges will see the parties’ expert witnesses as too extreme.  The time-consuming, expensive resort to court-appointed witnesses, however, will not likely advance the resolution of issues of historical scholarship.  Unlike the selection process in MDL 926, where Judge Pointer could relatively quickly find his way to well-qualified, credible, and disinterested witnesses, the selection of an historian would stumble over the disinterestedness criterion.  Historians, by the nature of their craft, are permitted, and are encouraged, to advance a point of view that is out of place in the judicial process.

Historian Witnesses on State-of-the-Art in Tort Cases

In products liability litigation over designs or warnings, a supplier or manufacturer is typically held to the knowledge and expertise of an expert in the field.  Unfortunately, the law offers little help in answering the obvious question of which expert, of all the experts in the world, sets the appropriate standard.  In litigation over the quality of medical care, the law in many states resolves this issue by providing a defense under the “Two Schools of Thought Doctrine.”  See, e.g., “Two Schools of Thought and Informed Consent Doctrine in Pennsylvania.”  98 Dickenson L. Rev. 713 (1994).  A physician does not deviate from the standard of care simply because many or most physicians reject the approach he or she took to the patient’s problem.  As long as a substantial minority of physicians would have concurred in the judgment of the defendant physician, the claim of malpractice fails.  The Two School Doctrine has obvious implications for the standard of design or warning in products cases.

What is clear in products liability cases is that the standard of expertise must be assessed at a given time, when the product or material enters the stream of commerce.  In silicosis cases, which may involve long latency periods between exposure and manifestation of claimed disease, the parties may face historical issues of what experts knew at the legally relevant time of the sale.  Intellectual historians may indeed provide helpful insights into what was actually believed by experts in the past, but such historical data about past “beliefs” can answer the state-of-the-art inquiry only in part.  Knowledge requires at least true, justified belief.  Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations 167-288 (Cambridge 1981).  Hunches, suspicions, and hypotheses, even when published in respected books or journals, do not rise to the level of scientific knowledge that can be charged to the manufacturer or the supplier defendants.  Historians, unless adequately trained and expert in scientific method and research, will be inadequate to the task of explaining whether a given belief was justified and true.  Historians, motivated by politics or ideology, may try to advance their causes by trumpeting some past scientific findings, but in the last analysis, scientific theories cannot be chosen the way one chooses to be a Democrat or a Republican.  Proof of “state of the art,” or who knew what when, will require substantial expertise in science and medicine.  Historians may have to emote on the sidelines of these debates.

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