Professor Faigman on the Dual Goals of the Daubert Revolution

Academic commentators on Daubert and its progeny tend to fall into two camps:  acolytes and heretics.  The acolytes have generally supported the changes brought about by Daubert and the ultimate statutory embrace of active expert witness gatekeeping.  The heretics have maintained a rearguard action against Daubert, and Rule 702; they have tried to undermine gatekeeping at every turn.

Among the chief acolytes is David Faigman, whose books and articles have contributed substantially to the discussions and debates about the law of scientific evidence and expert witnesses.  Professor Faigman’s recent article is an important contribution to the law review literature on Daubert.  David L. Faigman, “The Daubert Revolution and the Birth of Modernity:  Managing Scientific Evidence in the Age of Science,” 102 U.C. Davis Law Rev. 101 (2013) [“Revolution”].  It is well worth reading.

Professor Faigman declares himself “a fan” of Daubert, and embraces the revolution in expert witness law heralded by the Supreme Court’s 1993 decision.  Id. at 103.  He emphasizes that the decision, quickly approaching its 20th anniversary, was truly revolutionary in how the federal courts engaged with expert witness opinion testimony, and that the consequences of the revolution are still taking shape.  Id.

Faigman acknowledges that Daubert and its progeny, and the statutory embrace of gatekeeping in Rule 702, at the end of the last millennium, were important developments in ensuring the epistemic warrant of federal courts’ judgments.  Some authors, hostile to the gatekeeping enterprise, have suggested that this aspect of Daubert resulted from persistent pressures from the defense bar and industry to limit plaintiffs’ access to the courts.  Faigman does not address such suggestions, and I believe that they are cynical and incorrect.  The federal courts, by the mid-1980’s, were deeply embarrassed by the scientific community’s opprobrium, meted out over notorious decisions, such as Wells v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 615 F. Supp. 262 (N.D. Ga. 1985), aff’d and rev’d in part on other grounds, 788 F.2d 741 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 479 U.S.950 (1986).  See also In re Air Crash Disaster at New Orleans, 795 F.2d 1230, 1234 (5th Cir. 1986) (“Our message to our able trial colleagues: it is time to take hold of expert testimony in federal trials.”).  Daubert and its progeny were, in my view, the judicial response to the scientific community’s criticisms.

Faigman’s thesis in this paper, however, lies elsewhere.  He argues that the Supreme Court’s excursions into expert evidence law, in Daubert and in the later cases, were intended primarily to give trial courts greater control over their dockets by being able to excluding dubious testimony and to grant summary dispositions.  Revolution at 104  Scientific verisimilitude was secondary to docket control.  Id. at 105.

Faigman’s thesis is plausible and should be taken seriously.  The first three cases in the “Revolution,” Daubert, Joiner, and Kumho Tire, were all tort cases with “mass tort” overtones.  Daubert was one of many Bendectin cases.  Joiner was a case involving occupational PCB exposures.  If the tenuous scientific opinions were deemed “admissible,” there were sure to be many more such cases.  And Kumho Tire was a case involving dubious allegations of a defect in a tire, the sort of allegations that plague American industry because they are so easy to manufacture, and so costly to defend.

Faigman builds an impressive case for the proposition that the justices really were trying to give trial courts managerial power to control their own dockets by filtering out essential, but deficient, expert witness testimony. Id. at 118.  After all, if the Supreme Court were really interested in improving judicial use of scientific evidence, why would it have created an abuse of discretion standard for reviewing Rule 702 determinations? The abuse standard signals that decisions either way are tolerable if they are accompanied by the right verbiage and procedural steps.

Faigman also points out that the abuse-of-discretion standard deprives the appellate courts of any meaningful review of the validity of scientific opinion testimony. The claims and conclusions advanced by expert witnesses in individual cases will often be of interest and importance to scientists, policy makers, plaintiffs, defendants, beyond the confines of the individual case.  The appellate courts are in a better position to ascertain validity questions, and maintain consistency in them, as a matter of law.  Freed of the pressures of trial courts, and with input from amici curiae, the appellate court can evaluate validity issues more deliberately with a view to harmonizing competing factors across many cases.  The scientific issues are, in any event, often non-case specific, or they have the tendency to recur in many cases of the same type.  Id. at 131.

Faigman’s thesis sheds light upon who the heretics are, and why they have worked so hard to undermine expert witness gatekeeping.  At stake is not only greater scientific validity, but also summary disposition of litigation rent-seeking. Rule 702 gatekeeping challenges judges and commentators to identify their priorities:  commitment to scientific principles or to litigation as an alternative to regulation and legislation on behalf of a special constituency.

There are some ironies inherent in Faigman’s thesis.  The trial bench has been reluctant to exercise its gatekeeping function as a method of docket control.  Instead, it has moved towards greater use of pre-trial consolidations in multi-district litigations to achieve economies of scale.  The MDL trend, however, has its problems.  Placing responsibility for expert witness gatekeeping in the MDL court may be counter to its “pre-trial” rationale of the MDL statute.  Furthermore, exercising gatekeeping across hundreds or thousands of cases heightens and highlights the anxieties, fears, distaste, and institutional incompetence for deciding scientific issues. The move toward MDL handling has had the apparent result of diluting the gatekeeping mandate and reducing the use of summary dispositions.

The procedural and the validity goals of Daubert are quite independent.  Validity may have been, as Faigman argues, a secondary goal for the Justices, but it was a worthy goal in and of itself.  I believe Professor Faigman would agree.  In describing the Supreme Court’s path on validity, Faigman notes that there were two competing models of expert witness admissibility determinations that vied for acceptance:  Frye, and then DaubertId. at 105. He likens Frye to nose counting among the “relevant” scientific community for support of the witness’s methodology.  All a trial judge need do is identify the relevant community and then to count the noses.  Daubert represented a possible alternative:

“to charge judges with the responsibility to consider the methods and principles underlying proffered expert opinion and have them make the validity determination.”

Id. at 105.  Making trial judges responsible for warranting the validity of scientific evidence, and ultimately all expert witness opinion testimony, was one of the important changes that resulted in the Revolution and its embrace of “good grounds” or epistemic validity:

“[p]roposed testimony must be supported by appropriate validation.”

Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., 509 U.S. 579, 590 (1993)

Professor Faigman correctly observes that, although lawyers and lower court judges have obsessed over the so-called Daubert factors, the actual holding of Daubert was “the requirement that an expert’s testimony pertain to ‘scientific knowledge’ establishes a standard of evidentiary reliability.” Revolution at 111 (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 590).  Despite the improvident dictum about focus on methodology and not on conclusions, the Supreme Court, in Daubert, had made clear that there are necessary implications of Rule 702’s requirement that expert witness testimony relate to specialized “knowledge”:

“This entails a preliminary assessment of whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid and of whether that reasoning or methodology properly can be applied to the facts in issue.”

Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592-93.

Professor Faigman writes to point out the erroneous interpretations and distortions of Daubert, its progeny, and Rule 702:

“The holding of Daubert is the requirement that judges find as a preliminary fact that the methods and principles underlying proffered expert testimony are sufficiently valid to support that testimony. The four ‘Daubert factors’ were offered as guidelines to help courts assess expert testimony.”

Revolution at 114.

Faigman’s writing is a useful reminder to those judges and commentators who would simplify and abridge the entire gatekeeping project into one or another dictum found in Daubert (or Joiner or Kumho Tire), and who ignore the actual holding of the cases, or the mandate of the subsequent statute. For those writers who try to evade the difficult scientific determinations and discriminations inherent in evaluating causal claims and other scientific opinions, Faigman reminds us that Justice Breyer, in his concurrence in Joiner, was not shy about pointing out that gatekeeping:

“will sometimes ask judges to make subtle and sophisticated determinations about scientific methodology and its relation to the conclusions an expert witness seeks to offer.”

General Electric Company v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 118 S. Ct. 512, 520 (1997) (Breyer, J., concurring).  I take Faigman’s essay as an eloquent importuning of the judiciary to heed Justice Breyer, to stop whining, and to start learning.

It is a measure of Professor Faigman’s concern for the accuracy and validity of scientific testimony that he cannot bring himself to address a third way:  ignore validity, reliability, sufficiency, and simply allow expert witnesses to battle out.

This third way was what really prevailed before Daubert in much of civil litigation over health effects.  The Frye rule was rarely if ever applied to such cases, and most states excepted the opinion testimony of physicians, in any event.  Before Frye, we had whatever was dished up by ready, willing, able (and sufficiently glib) testifiers.  To be sure, expert witnesses had to be qualified, but the threshold was astonishingly low.  In Pennsylvania, for instance, the standard is that the putative “expert” must have “a reasonable pretense of expertise.” See, e.g., Ruzzi v. Butler Petroleum Co., 527 Pa. 1, 9-10 (1991); Kuisis v. Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corp.,457 Pa. 321, 319 A.2d 914 (1974)(“the witness must have a reasonable pretension to specialized knowledge on the subject under investigation”).  The federal courts were not far behind. Ferebee v. Chevron Chem. Co., 552 F. Supp. 1297 (D.D.C. 1982), aff’d, 736 F.2d 1529 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1062 (1984).

Indeed, there is a pervasive, reactionary movement afoot, among judges and academic commentators to return to the wild, woolly days, celebrated in Ferebee’s famous dictum:

“On questions … which stand at the frontier of current medical and epidemiological inquiry, if experts are willing to testify that such a link exists, it is for the jury to decide whether to credit such testimony.”

Ferebee, 736 F.2d at 1534.  This third way then is simply to delegate to the expert witnesses themselves to assess the “weight of the evidence,” and offer up their opinions, without any scrutiny from the courts as to the validity or sufficiency of the bases for those opinions. This retrograde step is not just the stuff of naive law student musings. See, e.g., Note, “Admitting Doubt: A New Standard for Scientific Evidence,” 123 Harv. L. Rev. 2021 (2010). Reactionaries in the Academy and in the judiciary are intent to reduce gatekeeping to a weak test of relevancy, without any determination of content validity.

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