Time to Retire Ancient Documents As Hearsay Exception

The Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Judicial Conference of the United States has prepared a Preliminary Draft of Proposed Amendments to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence (Aug. 2015). The Committee seeks approval of proposed amendments to Bankruptcy Rules 1001 and 1006, and to Federal Rules of Evidence Rules 803 (16)and 902. See Debra Cassens Weiss, “Federal judiciary considers dumping ‘ancient documents’ rule,” ABA Journal Online (Aug. 19, 2015).

Rule 803(16) of the Federal Rules of Evidence is the so-called ancient document exception to the rule against hearsay. The proposed amendment would abolish this hearsay exception.

The Federal Rules of Evidence, as well as most state rules and common law, allow for the authentication of ancient documents, by showing just three things:

(A) is in a condition that creates no suspicion about its authenticity;

(B) was in a place where, if authentic, it would likely be; and

(C) is at least 20 years old when offered.

Federal Rule of Evidence 902(8) (“Evidence About Ancient Documents or Data Compilations”). Rule 803(16) goes beyond the authentication to permit the so-called ancient document, more than 20-years old, appearing to be authentic, to be admitted for its truth. The Committee is seeking the abrogation of Rule 803(16), the ancient documents exception to the hearsay rule. The proposal is based upon an earlier report of the Advisory Committee on Evidence Rules. See Hon. William K. Sessions, III, Chair, Report of the Advisory Committee on Evidence Rules (May 7, 2015).

The requested change is based upon the Committee’s understanding that the exception is rarely used, and upon the development of electronic documents, which makes the exception unneccessary because so-called ancient documents would usually be admissible under the business records or the residual hearsay exceptions. Comments can be submitted online or in writing, by February 16, 2016.

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. The pace of change of technical and scientific opinion and understanding is too fast to indulge this exception that permits false statements of doubtful validity to confuse the finder of fact. The rule as currently in effect is thus capable of a good deal of mischief. With respect to statements or claims to scientific knowledge, the Federal Rules of Evidence has 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.

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