Too Many Narratives – Historians in the Dock

Historical Associates Inc. (HAI) is a commercial vendor for historical services, including litigation services. Understandably, this firm, like the academic historians who service the litigation industry, takes a broad view of the desirability of historian expert witness testimony.  An article in one of the HAI’s newsletters stakes out lawyer strategies in trying to prove historical facts.  Lawyers can present percipient witnesses, or they

“can present the story themselves, but in the end, arguments by advocates can raise questions of bias that obscure, rather than clarify, the historical facts at issue.”

Mike Reis and Dave Wiseman, “Introducing and interpreting facts-in-evidence: the historian’s role as expert witness,” HAIpoints 1 (Summer 2010)[1]. These commercial historians recommend that advocacy bias, so clear in lawyers’ narratives, be diffused or obscured by having a professional historian present the “story.”  They tout the research skills of historians: “Historians know how to find critical historical information.” And to be sure, historians, whether academic or for-hire may offer important bibliographic services, as well as help in translating, authenticating, and contextualizing documents.  But these historians from HAI want a role on center-stage, or at least in the witness box.  They tell us that:

“Historians synthesize information into well-documented, compelling stories.”

Ah yes, compelling stories, as in “the guiltless gust of a rattling good yarn[2].” The legal system should take a pass on such stories.

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A recent law review article attempts to provide a less commercial defense of expert witness testimony.  See Alvaro Hasani, “Putting history on the stand: a closer look at the legitimacy of criticisms levied against historians who testify as expert witnesses,” 34 Whittier L. Rev. 343 (2013) [Hasani].  Hasani argues that historians strive to provide objective historical “interpretation,” by selecting reliable sources, and reliably reading and interpreting these sources to create a reliable “narrative.” Hasani at 355. Hasani points to some courts that have thrown up their hands and declared Daubert reliability factors inapplicable to non-scientific historian testimony. See, e.g., United States v. Paracha, No. 03 CR. 1 197(SHS), 2006 WL 12768, at *19 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 3, 2006) (noting that Daubert is not designed for gatekeeping of a non-scientific, historian expert witness’s methodology); Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan v. Granholm, 690 F. Supp. 2d 622, 634 (E.D. Mich. 2010) (noting that “[t]here is no way to ‘test’ whether the experts’ testimony concerning the historical understanding of the treaties is correct. Nor is it possible to establish an ‘error rate’ for historical experts.”).

Not all testifying historians agree, however, that their research and findings are non-scientific.  Here is how one plaintiffs’ expert witness characterized historical thinking:

“Q. Do you believe that historical thinking is a form of scientific thinking?

A. I do. I think that history is sometimes classed with the humanities, sometimes classed with the social sciences, but I think there is a good deal of historical research and writing that is a form of social science.”

Examination Before Trial of Gerald Markowitz, in Mendez v. American Optical, District Court for Tarrant County, Texas (342d Judicial District), at 44:13-20 (July 19, 2005). Professor Susan Haack, and others, have made a persuasive case that the epistemic warrants for claims of knowledge, whether denominated scientific or non-scientific, are not different in kind. If historian testimony is not about knowledge of the past, then it clearly has no role in a trial. Furthermore, Professor Markowitz is correct that sometimes historical opinions are scientific in the sense that they can be tested. If a labor historian asserts that workers are exploited and subjected to unsafe work conditions due to the very nature of capitalism and the profit motives, then that historian’s opinion will be substantially embarrassed by the widespread occupational disease in European and Asian communist regimes.

When Deborah Lipstadt described historian David Irving as a holocaust denier[3], Irving sued Lipstadt for defamation.  In defending against the claim, Lipstadt successfully carried the burden of proving the truth of her accusation.  The trial court’s judgment, quoted by Hasani, reads like a so-called Daubert exclusion of plaintiff Irving’s putative historical writing. Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd., No. 1996-1-1113, 2000 WL 362478, at ¶¶ 1.1, 13.140 (Q.B. Apr. 11, 2000)(finding that “Irving ha[d] misstated historical evidence; adopted positions which run counter to the weight of the evidence; given credence to unreliable evidence and disregarded or dismissed credible evidence.”).

The need for gatekeeping of historian testimony should be obvious.  Historian testimony is often narrative of historical fact that is not beyond the ken of an ordinary fact finder, once the predicate facts are placed into evidence.  Such narratives of historical fact present a serious threat to the integrity of fact finding by creating the conditions for delegation and deferring fact finding responsibility to the historian witness, with an abdication of responsibility by the fact finder. See Ronald J. Allen, “The Conceptual Challenge of Expert Evidence,” 14 Discusiones Filosóficas 41, 50-53 (2013).

Some historians clearly believe that they are empowered by the witness chair to preach or advocate. Allan M. Brandt, who has served as a party expert witness to give testimony on many occasions for plaintiffs in tobacco cases, unapologetically described the liberties he has taken thus:

“It seems to me now, after the hopes and disappointments of the courtroom battle, that we have a role to play in determining the future of the tobacco pandemic. If we occasionally cross the boundary between analysis and advocacy, so be it. The stakes are high, and there is much work yet to do.”

Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistance of the Product That Defined American 505 (2007).

Hasani never comes to grips with the delegation problem or with Brandt’s attitude, which is quite prevalent in the product liability arena. The problem is more than merely “occasional.” The overreaching by historian witnesses reflects the nature of their discipline, the lack of necessity for their testimony, and the failure of courts to exercise their gatekeeping. The problem with Brandt’s excuse making is that neither analysis nor advocacy is needed or desired. Advocacy is the responsibility of counsel, as well as the kind of analysis involved in much of historian testimony.  For instance, when historians offer testimony about the so-called “state of the art,” they are drawing inferences from published and unpublished sources about what people knew or should have known, and about their motivations.  Although their bibliographic and historical researches can be helpful to the fact finder’s effort to understand who was writing what about the issue in times past, historians have no real expertise, beyond the lay fact finder, in discerning intentions, motivations, and belief states.

Hasani concludes that the prevalence of historian expert witness testimony is growing. Hasani at 364.  He cites, however, only four cases for the proposition, three of which pre-date Daubert.  The fourth is an native American rights case. Hasani at 364 n.139. There is little or no evidence that historian expert witness testimony is becoming more prevalent, although it continues in product liability where state of the art — who knew what, when — remains an issue in strict liability and negligence. Mack v. Stryker Corp., 893 F. Supp. 2d 976 (D. Minn. 2012), aff’d, 748 F.3d 845 (8th Cir. 2014). There remains a need for judicial vigilance in policing such state-of-the-art testimony.

[1] Mike Reis is the Vice President and Director of Litigation Research at History Associates Inc. Mr. Reis was received his bachelor’s degree from Loyola College, and his master’s degree from George Washington University, both in history. David Wiseman, an erstwhile trial attorney, conducts historical research for History Associates.

[2] Attributed to Anthony Burgess.

[3] Deborah E. Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory 8 (1993).


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