Should Federal Rule of Evidence 702 Be Amended?

Almost 27 years have passed since the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Daubert.[1] The holding was narrow. The Court reminded the Bar that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 was a statute, and that courts were thus bound to read it as a statute. The plain language of Rule 702 had been adopted by the Court in 1972, and then enacted by Congress, to be effective on July 1, 1975. Absent from the enacted Rule 702 was the “twilight zone” test articulated by a lower federal court in 1923.[2] In the Daubert case, the defense erroneously urged the application of the twilight zone test. In the post-modern way, the plaintiffs urged the application of no test.[3] The Court held simply that the twilight zone test had not been incorporated in the statutory language of Rule 702. Instead, the Court observed that the plain language of the statute imposed “helpfulness” and epistemic requirements for admitting expert witness opinion testimony.

It took another two Supreme Court decisions to flesh out the epistemic requirements for expert witnesses’ opinions,[4] and a third decision in which the Court told the Bench and Bar that the requirements of Rule 702 are “exacting.”[5] After the Supreme Court had added significantly to Rule 702’s helpfulness and knowledge requirements, the Advisory Committee revised the rule in 2000, to synthesize and incorporate these four Supreme Court decisions, and scholarly thinking about the patho-epistemology of expert witness opinion testimony. The Committee revised Rule 702 again in 2011, but only on “stylistic” issues, without any intent to add to or subtract from the 2000 rule.

Not all judges got the memo, or bothered to read and implement the revised Rule 702, in 2000. At both the District Court and the Circuit levels, courts persisted, and continue to persist, in citing retrograde decisions that predate the 2000 amendment, and even predate the 1993 decision in Daubert. Even the Supreme Court, in a 2011 opinion that did not involve the interpretation of Rule 702, was misled by a Solicitor General’s amicus brief, into citing one of the most anti-science, anti-method, post-modern, pre-Daubert, anything-goes decisions.[6] The judicial resistance to Rule 702 is well documented in many scholarly articles,[7] by the Reporter to the Advisory Committee,[8] and in the pages of this and other blogs.

In 2015, when evidence scholar David Bernstein argued that Rule 702 required amending,[9] I acknowledged the strength of his argument, but resisted because of what I perceived to be the danger of opening up the debate in Congress.[10] Professor Bernstein and lawyer Eric Lasker detailed and documented the many judicial dodges and evasions engaged in by many judges intent upon ignoring the clear requirements of Rule 702.

A paper published this week by the Washington Legal Foundation has updated and expanded the case for reform made by Professor Bernstein five years ago. In his advocacy paper, lawyer Lee Mickus has collated and analyzed some of the more recent dodges, which will depress the spirits of anyone who believes in evidence-based decision making.[11] My resistance to reform by amendment is waning. The meaning and intent of Rule 702 has been scarred over by precedent based upon judicial ipse dixit, and not Rule 702.

Mickus’s paper, like Professor Bernstein’s articles before, makes a persuasive case for reform, but this new paper does not evaluate the vagaries of navigating an amendment through the Advisory Committee, the Supreme Court, and Congress. Even if the reader is not interested in the amendment process, the paper can be helpful to the advocate in anticipating dodgy rule denialism.

[1]  Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).

[2]  Frye v. United States, 54 App. D.C. 46, 293 F. 1013 (1923).

[3]  SeeThe Advocates’ Errors in Daubert” (Dec. 28, 2018).

[4]  General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136 (1997); Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999).

[5]  Weisgram v. Marley Co., 528 U.S. 440, 455 (2000) (Ginsberg, J.) (unanimous decision).

[6] Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 563 US 27, 131 S.Ct. 1309, 1319 (2011) (citing Wells v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 615 F. Supp. 262, 298 (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)).  SeeWells v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp. Reconsidered – Part 1”; “Part 2”; “Part 3”; “Part 4”; “Part 5”; and “Part 6”.

[7]  David E. Bernstein & Eric Lasker, “Defending Daubert: It’s Time to Amend Federal Rule of Evidence 702,” 57 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1 (2015); David E. Bernstein, “The Misbegotten Judicial Resistance to the Daubert Revolution,” 89 Notre Dame L. Rev. 27 (2014).

[8]  See Daniel J. Capra, Reporter’s Memorandum re Forensic Evidence, Daubert and Rule 702 at 52 (April 1, 2018) (“[T]he fact remains that some courts are ignoring the requirements of Rule 702(b) and (d). That is frustrating.”).

[9]  David E. Bernstein & Eric Lasker, “Defending Daubert: It’s Time to Amend Federal Rule of Evidence 702,” 57 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1 (2015).

[10]  “On Amending Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence” (Oct. 17, 2015).

[11]  Lee Mickus, “Gatekeeping Reorientation: Amend Rule 702 to Correct Judicial Misunderstanding about Expert Evidence,” Washington Legal Foundation Critical Legal Issues Working Paper No. 217 (May 2020).

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