Many people know that in 2013 Florida passed a law which changed the divorce expert witness rule and how experts could testify in family law cases. A few people warned that the new law may be unconstitutional because of the way it passed. Fewer people know that in 2018 the Florida Supreme Court threw out the new rule. Even fewer people know that last week the court changed it all back.
The Frye Pan
People rely on all sorts of expert witnesses in divorce and family law cases, maybe more than most areas of law. Routinely, people will come to trial with accountants, psychologists, and other experts in tow.
Since 1923 courts have relied on the Frye Rule, which states that expert opinion based on a scientific technique is only admissible where the technique is generally accepted as reliable in the scientific community.
In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted a new standard which requires trial judges to screen expert testimony for relevance and reliability. The “Daubert test” developed in three product liabilities cases. The plaintiffs tried to introduce expert testimony to prove products caused their damages. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately tightened the rules for admitting expert testimony
Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen
In 2013, the Florida Legislature amended the Florida Evidence Code to start following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Daubert standard for the admission of expert testimony and the basis for an expert’s opinion.
I’ve written about the Constitutional problem with the way the legislature created the new law. When the legislature passes a law encroaching on courtroom practice and procedure, the laws are unconstitutional. However, the Legislature can enact substantive laws.
When one branch of government encroaches on another branch, Florida traditionally applies a “strict separation of powers doctrine.” Given that the Evidence Code contains both substantive and procedural provisions, there is a question whether the Legislature violated the separation of powers doctrine.
The Florida Evidence Code contains both substantive and procedural provisions, so there was a suspicion that the Legislature violated the separation of powers doctrine when it amended the code this way. At the time however, that issue has not been accepted by the Florida Supreme Court to date. The latest decision corrected that.
The Florida Supreme Court, as part of its Constitutional rule-making authority has the power to adopt Legislative changes to the Evidence Code. As we saw before, the Court previously refused to adopt the Daubert amendments, to the extent that they are procedural, solely:
“due to the constitutional concerns raised” by the Committee members and people who opposed the amendments.”
This year, without re-addressing the correctness of the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling in DeLisle v. Crane Co, and after noting that DeLisle did not address the amendment to section 90.704 made by section 2 of chapter 2013-107, the Court chose to recede from its prior decision not to adopt the Legislature’s Daubert amendments.
The Court remarked that the Daubert standard has been routinely applied in federal courts since 1993, a majority of states adhere to Daubert, and caselaw after Daubert shows that the rejection of expert testimony is the exception rather than the rule.
Citing to Animal House, one of the dissenters to the majority opinion, newly appointed Justice, Robert J. Luck, poked fun at the High Court’s swift rule change:
Like the little-known codicil in the Faber College constitution, the concurring opinion cites section II.G.1. of our internal operating procedures, which provides that “the Court, on its own motion, may adopt or amend rules.” Id. (quoting Fla. S. Ct. Internal Op. Proc. II.G.1.). According to Westlaw, no court, including ours, has ever cited this language or any part of section II. Ever.
Effective immediately, the Florida Supreme Court adopted the amendments to section 90.702 as procedural rules of evidence, and adopted the amendment to section 90.704 to the extent it is procedural.
The Supreme Court opinion is available here.