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

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]

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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.

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