Sunday, July 31, 2005

Microscopic Hair Analysis Upheld by Connecticut Supreme Court

The Connecticut Supreme Court has issued a major opinion upholding the admissibility of expert testimony on microscopic hair analysis. See State v. West, No. SC 16627 (Conn. Sup. Ct. July 26, 2005).

Monday, July 25, 2005

Rhode Island Supreme Court Affirms Physician's Testimony on Cause of Infant's Multiple Fractures

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has upheld the admissibility under Daubert of an orthopedist's opinion that an infant's multiple fractures resulted from a medical condition, not parental neglect or abuse. See In re MacKenzie C., No. 2003-128 (R.I. Sup. Ct. July 18, 2005).

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Overblown Rhetoric Watch -- "Tort Reform" Edition

Like most people, we have a lot of political opinions. You don't know what most of them are, because we don't generally flog them here.

Not that we hesitate to state our views, if they relate in some discernible way to the general topic of this weblog (expert evidence). But we aren't primarily here to be rabble-rousers or controversialists, and so we generally leave unstated whatever opinions we may hold on subjects not related to this weblog's fairly narrow topical focus. Our readers do not know what we may think about gun control, affirmative action, abortion, Valerie Plame, the Patriot Act, North Korea's nuclear program, or the marginal tax rate. Readers might guess at our opinions about such things. But they might guess wrong.

Our reticence has not saved us, however, from being counted as part of a "ton of left-leaning blogs." That is how we now find ourselves characterized by Jacob Montgomery (as one of three cited examples) after our one-sentence post of 7/7/05 relating news of a study by the Center for Justice and Democracy on the relationship between medical malpractice premiums and payouts. (On the following day, our post ballooned to two sentences, when we updated it with a link to James R. Copland's extensive critique and rebuttal of the study at Point of Law -- a Manhattan Institute site.)

What this "ton of left-leaning blogs" did, according to Montgomery, is "feature" the study as "proof" that "malpractice insurance companies – not lawsuits – are the cause of skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance rates."

For the record, we do not recognize ourselves in this description. For one thing, we did not cite the study as "proof" of anything. We're pretty slow to make claims like that. For another, our post made no claims at all about anything's having caused a solitary thing.

But our original post can speak for itself. Here it is, in its entirety:
The New York Times reports on a new study by the Center for Justice and Democracy showing malpractice premiums rising 120% over the past five years while payouts were flat.
Our header for that post:

Another Study Casts Doubt on the Malpractice Liability "Crisis"
That header was worded carefully. As loyal readers know, empirical investigations have repeatedly called into question whether any substantial basis exists for claims that the recent explosion in malpractice premiums is primarily attributable to any corresponding jump in malpractice payouts. See, e.g., our posts of 2/22/05, 3/16/05, 3/23/05, and 6/4/05.

That doesn't end the inquiry, of course. One prominent justification for "reform" often touted by advocates of damage caps and similar measures is the suggestion that current spikes in malpractice insurance rates result entirely from some recent explosion in frivolous malpractice lawsuits that are extorting large payouts from physicians and their insurers. But that is not the only rationale that "tort reformers" have advanced. Meanwhile, as we have repeatedly attempted to notice (and as we have duly applauded "tort reform" advocates for noticing, when they do), multiple causes for fluctuations in malpractice rates are undoubtedly in play, and in the longer term, those causal factors undoubtedly include payouts as well as other factors. No single study, meanwhile, should be accepted as decisive, nor should any be read with an uncritical eye. There will be imperfections, or outright defects, in everybody's favorite studies. Some of those studies might also be vulnerable to the charge that they were undertaken by investigators with some stake or agenda.

That said, empirical investigations into the relationship between payouts and premiums do seem worthy of consideration in assessing whether the current premium crisis stems from any recent outburst of frivolous litigiousness from the plaintiffs' malpractice bar, as more than a few "tort reform" advocates have alleged. We personally believe that before any such claim becomes the basis for wholesale legal revolution (federalization of malpractice law, stringent caps on compensatory damages for even claimants having suffered crippling harm, special evidentiary rules, et cetera), the empirical foundations of the claim should be reasonably well-established. And we don't think that qualifies us as left-leaning. At most, we think it qualifies us as aspirational members of the reality-based community.

In sum, if somebody wants our actual opinion, we don't think any one study "proves" anything, or that the behavior of malpractice premiums can be explained by exclusive resort to any single cause. We do think that the changes proposed by advocates of "tort reform" are sufficiently radical that they should have the burden of empirical persuasion. And so when another study comes along that calls the empirical validity of one rationale for "reform" into question, we think it's worth reviewing.

As for being called "left-leaning," let us make clear why we're peeved. There would be no shame in being a left-leaning person. Nor is there any shame in authoring a left-leaning weblog. Some of our best friends are left-leaning. And ordinarily we might feel honored, to be mentioned in the same breath with anyone, of whatever political stripe, so well-known as the other "left-leaning" bloggers with whom Mr. Montgomery has passingly lumped us.

But we are not happy with falling victim to drive-by ideological pigeonholing, in which views we never stated are attributed to us, and then to our supposed political leanings, for no better apparent reason than the expository convenience of a commentator who wants to set up strawmen to knock down. If somebody wants to measure our actually stated views with his personal political yardstick, that's fine. It's a free country. But it is irritating to have it suggested that our views on this study are colored by some hypothesized political bias, when we haven't stated any very definite views on the study to begin with -- and certainly not the ones described.

Are we blowing Mr. Montgomery's reference out of all proportion? Maybe. But to us the reference seemed a little propagandistic, and sometimes the only way to fight propaganda is with a surfeit of dreary precision.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Translators Must Speak Language, Second Circuit Insists

A document translated from the Arabic by a "translator" who neither speaks nor reads Arabic, and who simply transcribed what the plaintiff told her to write, does not satisfy the requirements of Fed. R. Evid. 602, 702, or 901(a), the Second Circuit has held. See Kassim v. City of Schenectady, No. 03-9283 (2d Cir. July 18, 2005) (Leval & Katmann, JJ.).

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

How to Tell When You've Been Sitting at Your Computer Too Long

A fly lands on your monitor.

You move the cursor toward the fly, hoping to scare it away.

Just happened. Signing off for the night now.

American Journal of Public Health Publishes Special Issue on Science, Public Policy, and Daubert

The American Journal of Public Health has published a special supplemental issue (titled "Scientific Evidence and Public Policy") on the use of science in judicial and regulatory proceedings. It includes over twenty articles on that general topic, focusing heavily on Daubert and its less well-known regulatory cousin, the Data Quality Act. Many of the articles offer new and thought-provoking analyses, as well as some intriguing empirical work. As a whole, they reflect a generally unfavorable take on Daubert, but even readers who disagree with that stance will find much to stimulate their thinking.

Contributors include a number of scientists and scholars whose names will already be familiar to many of our readers. Among others: Margaret Berger, Richard Clapp, Sander Greenland, Susan Haack, Sheila Jasanoff, George Lakoff, David Ozonoff, Kenneth Rothman, and David Michaels (who also served as guest editor for the special issue). Topics range from juror competence in gauging scientific evidence, to the courts' troublingly permissive posture on forensic evidence in criminal cases, to tensions within the set of epistemological assumptions embedded in the Daubert decision and its progeny. The papers grew out of a March 2003 symposium in Coronado, California, sponsored by the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, and they can be downloaded from SKAPP's website. They have been deposited at PubMed too.

There's a lot to absorb here, and we plan to be delving into some of the individual articles, as time permits, over the next little spell. For now, we'll venture some thoughts on just one overarching theme. Expert scientific evidence is a controversial subject, and some of the articles in this collection will inevitably become fodder for lively debate, if not outright polemic. Some of the authors' conclusions will be dismissed in some quarters as driven by ideological predisposition, and some of the analyses will be criticized, fairly or no, for a perceived want of neutrality. We make that prediction with a mixture of apprehension and satisfaction. Apprehension, because it would be a shame if the genuinely fresh insights reflected in some of this work were drowned out by the stale rhetorical posturing so familiar in the expert evidence wars. Satisfaction, because we don't believe it's profitable any longer, if ever it was, to pretend that these issues are without substantial political content. That may as well be acknowledged explicitly.

The notion that there exists some single true measure of bona fide science, or some single set of neutral and objectively valid rules about how the tools of science should be discussed, evaluated, or deployed -- such a notion, in our view, is itself an ideological artifact, and only very dubiously defensible. To say this is not to embrace some version of postmodern intellectual nihilism, in which inconvenient empirical results are simply discarded in some junkheap of relativistic oblivion. Nor is it to say that we should become casual about allowing jury verdicts and policy decisions to be based on charlatanry. It is to say that we should be resoundingly skeptical, and bring all our critical faculties to bear, when somebody's blinkered and doctrinaire vision of what does and does not constitute "sound science" aligns uncannily with a specific set of political or economic interests.

The truth is that values are at stake here, and these debates have an irreducible political component. It does not suffice, therefore, to charge opponents in the debate with holding a certain political outlook, or to accuse them of being associated in one way or another with certain interests. There is no neutral and value-free intellectual location from which such stones could be cast without sin -- and anybody who claims there is, is probably selling something. The real question should be whether people show a willingness to depart from preconceived viewpoints, when rational analysis and honest empirical inquiry suggest that the picture may be different from what somebody originally wanted to believe.

What is refreshing about this collection is the way in which many of the contributors (not all) appear have come to their views through a process of reasoned investigation, employing recognized canons of independent inquiry that did not predetermine some desired conclusion. They may not have come to their work free from all bias. Like the rest of us, they are mortals. But there is, in much of this writing, a willingness to go beneath the surface, and to drill down to serious business, that is evocative of the best in the scientific temperament. There will be those who want to praise this work, and those who want to criticize it. The best praise, and also the best criticism, would be to take up the same project, in the same spirit, and do better.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Journal of Law and Public Policy Publishes "Science for Judges III"

We're a little late in noticing this, but Brooklyn Law School's Journal of Law and Policy has published "Science for Judges III" -- papers from the third in a series of conferences addressing the use of scientific evidence in legal proceedings. This installment focuses on forensic evidence in criminal proceedings, including papers on fingerprint evidence, mitochondrial DNA, and bullet-lead matching. You can download the articles by going to the issue's online table of contents.

Daubert & John G. Roberts

Apparent judicial track record of John G. Roberts, Jr., in cases deciding issues involving the admissibility of expert testimony: none whatsoever.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Wyoming Supreme Court Applies Daubert Calculus to Septic System (and Mentions Copernicus in the Process)

The Wyoming Supreme Court has issued a major opinion on the appropriate application of the Daubert calculus. The case involved allegations that defendants' negligence in trenching a water line caused a "leach field" (part of a septic system) to fail. The trial court excluded the opinions of plaintiff's engineers for want of adequate testing. That was error, concluded the Wyoming Supreme Court (it unduly fetishized testing). But the testimony's exclusion was warranted on alternative grounds, said the court, because the engineers did not sufficiently rule out other potential causes for the leach field's failure, and did not sufficiently explain how their experience supported their conclusions.

We like this opinion, because it mentions Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Karl Popper in the course of resolving a dispute over a septic system malfunction. Apparently our undergraduate liberal arts degree did help to prepare us for the legal profession. See Hoy v. DRM, Inc., No. 04-46 (Wyo. Sup. Ct. July 13, 2005).

First Circuit Upholds Testimony from Life-Care Planner

The First Circuit has published an opinion upholding the trial testimony of a life-care planner on future medical costs, in a malpractice case involving severe neurological damage to the infant. See Rivera v. Turabo Med. Ctr. P'ship, No. 04-2494 (1st Cir. July 15, 2005) (Lynch, Lipez, & Howard, JJ.).

Seventh Circuit Links Updated

We noticed a few weeks back that some of our links had been rendered obsolescent by a revamping of the Seventh Circuit's website. We kept procrastinating about fixing them, until we read Bob Ambrogi's critique of Findlaw, whose links are apparently in a state of some disrepair.

Well, when you think of legal websites, what sites do you think of? You think of Findlaw first, maybe. But our parent site is obviously a close second. So we became worried, naturally, that our own lassitude in link maintenance would soon become the focus of public scandal. In the effort to beat Bob Ambrogi to the punch, we woke up early this morning, brewed ourselves a pot of strong coffee, and repaired all the links on our Seventh Circuit page. (Note to Seventh Circuit webmaster: Kindly review our cri de couer of 8/7/04.)

Technically, we might have qualified for Bob Ambrogi's "mom-and-pop" exception. But resort to that excuse would not have been altogether free from ignominy. And the purpose of a site that provides links to judicial opinions, we suppose, is to supply working links.

We're still working on updating duplicate Seventh Circuit links on other pages at the site. And the Federal Circuit (where the links can't ever seem to stay put) is next. We promise.

Update 7/17/05: The duplicate Seventh Circuit links are now fixed too.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Dressing the Emperor

From last week's unpublished opinion in United States v. McKreith, No. 03-11199 (11th Cir. July 8, 2005):
The plaid shirt, manufactured by "Van Huessen," seized from the residence was sent to an FBI crime lab and was analyzed by forensic analyst Richard Vorder Bruegge. Mr. Vorder Bruegge analyzed the shirt, along with various videotapes and photographs, to determine if that shirt and other articles he was given matched the articles worn by the robber in the surveillance images. Vorder Bruegge testified that "all of the characteristics of this shirt matched the class characteristics of the shirt worn by the bank robber in those cases that we could see the shirt" . . . .

The district court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the testimony of government forensic expert Richard Vorder Bruegge. The court conducted a [Daubert] hearing, where McKreith had the opportunity to voir dire and, during his testimony, cross-examine Vorder Bruegge as to his scientific techniques and conclusions, including the commonality of the shirt seized in McKreith's residence with the shirts depicted in the banks' surveillance images.
Oh, sure. The forensic expert "analyzed" the shirt and used "scientific techniques" to establish the shirt's "commonality."

The first thing he did, we imagine, was to cut a fabric sample from those video surveillance tapes . . .

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Balance of Anglo-American Trade

As various news outlets are reporting, a British review board has found that Sir Roy Meadow gave false and misleading evidence on "cot death" in at least one homicide case.

The BBC has seized the occasion to run a feature on what the future holds for expert testimony in the English courts. To read the views of the commentators quoted in the BBC piece is an almost quaint exercise -- as though one were listening to an entire nation's first halting attempts to come to intellectual grips with a set of problems that its citizens had been too congenitally naive, until Sir Meadow came along, even to imagine (and whose full dimensions the English may still be too gentlemanly to comprehend).

The BBC piece advises us, for example, that in England, experts can earn a substantial income. This reportedly contributes to the problem of the hired gun -- experts who are ostensibly there to serve the court, but who are ultimately subsidized by solicitors who may pressure them to take particular positions.

Only in England, we suspect, could such revelations count as news. There is also this little nugget, reflecting an outlook that many observers of the American debate on expert testimony would probably find peculiar:
"In court, the expert is the only witness called to give opinion, rather than facts. And that opinion is on science, which changes, whereas the law seeks certainty."
Various proposed reforms are discussed, including accreditation, a corroboration requirement, and instructing jurors that expert testimony should not be accepted uncritically. One reform proposal, however, goes wholly unmentioned: any suggestion that the English judicial system adopt Daubert.

Federal Circuit Issues En Banc Decision Addressing Use of Extrinsic Evidence in Patent Claims

We're not patent lawyers. But the Federal Circuit has issued what looks to us like an important decision providing guidance on the use of extrinsic evidence, including expert evidence, in claim construction. See Phillips v. AWH Corp., No. 03-1269 (Fed. Cir. July 12, 2005) (en banc). From the opinion:
We have . . . held that extrinsic evidence in the form of expert testimony can be useful to a court for a variety of purposes, such as to provide background on the technology at issue, to explain how an invention works, to ensure that the court's understanding of the technical aspects of the patent is consistent with that of a person of skill in the art, or to establish that a particular term in the patent or the prior art has a particular meaning in the pertinent field. See Pitney Bowes, Inc. v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 182 F.3d 1298, 1308-09 (Fed. Cir. 1999); Key Pharms. v. Hercon Labs. Corp., 161 F.3d 709, 716 (Fed. Cir. 1998). However, conclusory, unsupported assertions by experts as to the definition of a claim term are not useful to a court. Similarly, a court should discount any expert testimony "that is clearly at odds with the claim construction mandated by the claims themselves, the written description, and the prosecution history, in other words, with the written record of the patent." Key Pharms., 161 F.3d at 716.

We have viewed extrinsic evidence in general as less reliable than the patent and its prosecution history in determining how to read claim terms, for several reasons. First, extrinsic evidence by definition is not part of the patent and does not have the specification's virtue of being created at the time of patent prosecution for the purpose of explaining the patent's scope and meaning. Second, while claims are construed as they would be understood by a hypothetical person of skill in the art, extrinsic publications may not be written by or for skilled artisans and therefore may not reflect the understanding of a skilled artisan in the field of the patent. Third, extrinsic evidence consisting of expert reports and testimony is generated at the time of and for the purpose of litigation and thus can suffer from bias that is not present in intrinsic evidence. The effect of that bias can be exacerbated if the expert is not one of skill in the relevant art or if the expert's opinion is offered in a form that is not subject to cross-examination. See Senmed, Inc. v. Richard-Allan Med. Indus., Inc., 888 F.2d 815, 819 n.8 (Fed. Cir. 1989). Fourth, there is a virtually unbounded universe of potential extrinsic evidence of some marginal relevance that could be brought to bear on any claim construction question. In the course of litigation, each party will naturally choose the pieces of extrinsic evidence most favorable to its cause, leaving the court with the considerable task of filtering the useful extrinsic evidence from the fluff. See Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 595 (1993) ("Expert evidence can be both powerful and quite misleading because of the difficulty in evaluating it."). Finally, undue reliance on extrinsic evidence poses the risk that it will be used to change the meaning of claims in derogation of the "indisputable public records consisting of the claims, the specification and the prosecution history," thereby undermining the public notice function of patents. Southwall Techs., 54 F.3d at 1578.

In sum, extrinsic evidence may be useful to the court, but it is unlikely to result in a reliable interpretation of patent claim scope unless considered in the context of the intrinsic evidence. Nonetheless, because extrinsic evidence can help educate the court regarding the field of the invention and can help the court determine what a person of ordinary skill in the art would understand claim terms to mean, it is permissible for the district court in its sound discretion to admit and use such evidence. In exercising that discretion, and in weighing all the evidence bearing on claim construction, the court should keep in mind the flaws inherent in each type of evidence and assess that evidence accordingly.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

11th Circuit Defends Deferential Review for Daubert Rulings

The Eleventh Circuit has published a lengthy and full-throated defense of deferential appellate review for Daubert rulings, in an opinion affirming the district court's decision to admit testimony by two prosecution chemists in a bench trial. See United States v. Brown, No. 03-15413 (11th Cir. July 8, 2005) (Anderson, Carnes, & Roney, JJ.).

Friday, July 08, 2005

Expert Opinion and Constitutional Adjudication Revisited

We have wondered aloud before about the role of expert judgment in constitutional adjudication. Whatever one's views on that subject, or on "partial birth abortion," today's opinion in Carhart v. Gonzalez, No. 04-3779 (8th Cir. July 8, 2005), contains a sustained and thoughtful analysis of issues surrounding the topic.

Anthrax Vaccinations Revisited

The military may not be doing very well at enlisting new recruits, preventing torture, or finding Osama bin Laden. But nobody can charge the brass with slacking off in its heroic effort to administer involuntary anthrax vaccinations to our soldiers. Effect Measure has the latest. (See also our posts of 12/23/03, 1/3/04, 1/9/04, and 8/29/04).

Duct Tape Revisited

On 6/29/04, we posted news of what our estimable Alabama correspondent Edward Still had described to us, in what seemed a safe use of the definite article, as "the duct-tape case."

Now there are at least two, and we are sorry to say that the Alabama decision of which Mr. Still apprised us last year is the less exotic of the pair, involving as it did only the mundane issue of duct-tape matching. The new one, according to the Chicago Tribune, involves matching lip prints on duct tape.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Another Study Casts Doubt on the Malpractice Liability "Crisis"

The New York Times reports on a new study by the Center for Justice and Democracy showing malpractice premiums rising 120% over the past five years while payouts were flat.

Update 7/8/05: Here's James Copland's rebuttal.

Silica Products Liability Order on Expert Testimony and Sanctions

We've found ourselves a copy of Judge Janis Jack's 249-page order of June 30, 2005, on jurisdiction, expert testimony, and sanctions in the multi-district Silica Products Liability Litigation.

So here it is.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Admissibility of OSHA Reports

A reader inquires:
OSHA reports obviously fall under the umbrella of Texas Rule of Evidence 803(8). However, in order to get the opinions of the investigator admitted, is it a necessity to have the investigator qualified under Daubert/Robinson, or is that up to the discretion of the Court? Authority seems to point in different directions. Any response is welcome.
Have some insight? Go here to provide it.

Mississippi Supreme Court Upholds Bloodstain Pattern Analysis

In a lengthy decision confirming the state's adoption of the Daubert standard, the Mississippi Supreme Court has upheld the admissibility of testimony on bloodstain pattern analysis in a homicide case. The defendant challenged the testimony partly on the basis that the blood splatter expert merely assumed that the stains in question were from human blood, but testimony from other witnesses had established a foundation for that conclusion. See Jones v. State, No. 2004-KA-00961-SCT (Miss. June 30, 2005).

Colorado Supreme Court Waxes Mathematical

Here's a dispatch from James England, our Colorado correspondent:
In a potentially far-reaching opinion, the Colorado Supreme Court on June 27, 2005, affirmed a trial court's exclusion of ergonomics testimony offered by a criminal defendant, finding that the expert's characterization of his opinion as being "more likely than not" was insufficiently supported by "empirical or methodological justification." See People v. Wilkerson, No. 04SA362 (Colo. June 27, 2005).

The defendant was charged with attempted first degree murder when a handgun discharged, accidentally, according to her. Her attorney endorsed a professor of ergonomics to testify about his general analysis of accidental shootings. Because the expert had not tested the actual handgun, it appears that his analysis was based on the defendant's account of the shooting and his opinion was essentially limited to stating that general factors of her account were consistent with an accidental shooting. The prosecution conceded, and the trial court agreed, that the expert was "eminently qualified" to testify in this field.

On cross-examination at a pre-trial Daubert hearing, the expert characterized his opinion as being that it was "more likely than not" that the shooting was accidental, and agreed that his reference to "likely" was the same as "more than 50 percent." The trial court then ruled that the defense could not present such expert testimony at trial, apparently criticizing the lack of any "body of literature or knowledge concerning standards of measuring" accidental shootings and "error rates" associated with such analysis.

In an interlocutory review of this order, a five-Justice majority of the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the exclusion of the expert testimony. Although expressing some criticism of the underlying factual foundation for the expert's opinion, the majority instead based its decision on the lack of "empirical or methodological justification in the record" for the expert's supposed "numeric calculation of the possibility that the shooting in this case was accidental." The two dissenting judges attacked this analysis, pointing out that the expert had not expressed any actual mathematical probabilities supporting his conclusion, but had merely agreed on cross-examination that he believed his opinion was more probable than not.

In Colorado, judges typically require any expert opinion to be couched in terms of "reasonable probability." That is, a medical expert, must testify that his or her diagnosis is based on a "reasonable degree of medical probability." This decision may require a foundational showing of some "empirical or methodological justification" that would establish the actual existence of such probability.
That block quotation is Mr. England's take. Here's ours, which should not be imputed to him.

The notion sometimes arises that whenever experts characterize their opinions by reference to probability, they are advancing quantitative probabilistic claims that must be gauged against formal statistical standards. That notion seems plainly fallacious, because "probability" has more than one meaning. It's simply wrong to impose a formal statistical one on expert testimony that neither claims nor depends on a primarily statistical basis. Similar confusion over testimony offered to a "reasonable medical [or scientific] certainty" seems to arise much more rarely, perhaps because nearly everybody understands that testimony need not really be indisputable to be admissible. Yesterday, for example, we reported on a case involving a handwriting expert who said she held her opinion to a "reasonable degree of scientific certainty." The Third Circuit was justly dismissive of the idea that such language imported a requirement of utter indubitability.

Someday, we may post a more extended discussion of the spurious mathematicization of legal standards that can arise when Daubert collides with verbiage associated with the burden of persuasion, or with "magic language" that state law may prescribe for experts describing the confidence with which their opinions are held. In the interim, we hope that Wilkerson does not foreshadow a general Colorado trend.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Handwriting Expert's Testimony Need Not Be Given to "Reasonable Degree of Scientific Certainty," Third Circuit Holds

In a published decision, the Third Circuit has held that a trial court committed no plain error in permitting a government handwriting identification expert to testify that her opinions were held to a "reasonable degree of scientific certainty." From the opinion:
As the Government has pointed out, . . . "there is nothing magical about the phrase, 'to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty.'" It is not derived from the language of Rule 702 itself, and this Court has been unable to find any authority to support the position that questions regarding the expert's "degree of scientific certainty" categorically renders expert testimony inadmissible.

Handwriting experts often give their opinions in terms of probabilities rather than certainties. See, e.g., United States v. Rosario, 118 F.3d 160, 163 (3d Cir. 1997) (considering a handwriting expert's testimony that the defendant "probably" authored a forged check in affirming a forgery conviction); United States v. McGlory, 968 F.2d 309, 346 (3d Cir. 1992) (handwriting testimony is admissible "even if the handwriting expert is not absolutely certain that the handwriting is that of the defendant."); United States v. Galvin, 394 F.2d 228, 229 n.1 (3d Cir. 1968) (handwriting testimony is not rendered inadmissible merely "because it expresses a probability"). Indeed, Jackson testified that rendering "less-than-certain" opinions is an accepted practice in her field. We therefore find no error (let alone a plain error) in the District Court's decision to allow Jackson's testimony and to allow the jury to determine what weight to give her "less-than-certain" conclusions. See McGlory, 968 F.2d at 346 ("Any issue regarding the certainty of [the handwriting expert's] testimony goes to the weight given that testimony and could be tested by cross-examination."); Galvin, 394 F.2d at 229 n.1 ("reservations in the expressed opinion . . . go to the weight of the evidence and are a determination for the jury or fact-finder to make. . . .").
See United States v. Mornan, No. 04-1319 (3d Cir. June 30, 2005) (Ambro, Van Antwerpen, & Tashima, JJ.).
Fed. R. Evid. 702: If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.