Matthew J. Peterson, Discretion Abused: Reinterpreting the Appellate Standard of Review for Hearsay
The decision by a federal a court to exclude or admit hearsay can be crucial to the case of either party. Despite this prospective impact, the federal courts of appeal currently defer to district courts’ expertise by reviewing a district court’s decision to admit or exclude hearsay for an abuse of discretion. Such deference often insulates district courts’ incorrect interpretation of the rule against hearsay and the improper application of the exclusions and exceptions to the rule from appellate reversal.
Lowering the standard of review for district court hearsay rulings would allow the appellate courts to ensure that the rule against hearsay and its exclusions and exceptions are properly construed by the district courts. Accordingly, there would a lesser likelihood that improper hearsay rulings determine the outcome of a case. However, because district courts specialize in finding facts while appellate courts concentrate on legal interpretation, simply affording district courts less deference within the realm of hearsay must be done cautiously.
In order to balance proper application of the rule against hearsay with the corresponding functions of the trial and appellate courts, the federal courts of appeal should select an appropriate standard of review based on the rationale underlying the district court’s ruling. If the district court’s ruling stemmed from an interpretation of the rule against hearsay, the appellate court should afford the district court minimal deference through de novo review. If the district court made a factual finding that led to the application of a hearsay exclusion or exception, intermediate clear-error review is proper. Finally, if the district court’s decision related to ultimate admissibility of hearsay for relevance or unfair prejudice, the appellate court should apply the highly deferential abuse-of-discretion standard.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/matthew_peterson/1/