Tomorrow's New York Times features a thought-provoking analysis by Adam Liptak of the problem of partisanship in the U.S. system of expert witnesses. Might the solution be "hot tubbing" - a new practice out of Australia?
"In U.S., Partisan Expert Witnesses Frustrate Many"
By Adam Liptak
New York Times, Aug. 12, 2008
Judge Denver D. Dillard was trying to decide whether a slow-witted Iowa man accused of acting as a drug mule was competent to stand trial. But the conclusions of the two psychologists who gave expert testimony in the case, Judge Dillard said, were “polar opposites.”The full article is here.
One expert, who had been testifying for defendants for 20 years, said the accused, Timothy M. Wilkins, was mentally retarded and did not understand what was happening to him. Mr. Wilkins’s verbal I.Q. was 58, the defense expert said.
The prosecution expert, who had testified for the state more than 200 times, said that Mr. Wilkins’s verbal I.Q. was 88, far above the usual cutoffs for mental retardation, and that he was perfectly competent to stand trial.
Judge Dillard, of the Johnson County District Court in Iowa City, did what American judges and juries often do after hearing from dueling experts: he threw up his hands. The two experts were biased in favor of the parties who employed them, the judge said, and they had given predictable testimony. “The two sides have canceled each other out,” Judge Dillard wrote in 2005, refusing to accept either expert’s conclusion and complaining that “no funding mechanism exists for the court to appoint an expert.”
In most of the rest of the world, expert witnesses are selected by judges and are meant to be neutral and independent. Many foreign lawyers have long questioned the American practice of allowing the parties to present testimony from experts they have chosen and paid....
Some major common-law countries are turning away from partisan experts. England and Australia have both adopted aggressive measures in recent years to address biased expert testimony....
Hot tubbing in Australia
In that procedure, also called concurrent evidence, experts are still chosen by the parties, but they testify together at trial — discussing the case, asking each other questions, responding to inquiries from the judge and the lawyers, finding common ground and sharpening the open issues....
Australian judges have embraced hot tubbing. “You can feel the release of the tension which normally infects the evidence-gathering process,” Justice Peter McClellan of the Land and Environmental Court of New South Wales said in a speech on the practice. “Not confined to answering the question of the advocates,” he added, experts “are able to more effectively respond to the views of the other expert or experts.” ...
England has also recently instituted what Adrian Zuckerman, the author of a 2006 treatise there, called “radical measures” to address “the culture of confrontation that permeated the use of experts in litigation.” The measures included placing experts under the complete control of the court, requiring a single expert in many cases and encouraging cooperation among experts when the parties retain more than one. Experts are required to sign a statement saying their duty is to the court and not to the party paying their bills.
There are no signs of similar changes in the United States. “The American tendency is strictly the party-appointed expert,” said James Maxeiner, a professor of comparative law at the University of Baltimore. “There is this proprietary interest lawyers here have over lawsuits.”
American lawyers often interview many potential expert witnesses in search of ones who will bolster their case and then work closely with them in framing their testimony to be accessible and helpful. At a minimum, the process results in carefully tailored testimony. Some critics say it can also produce bias and ethical compromises....
The United States Supreme Court has expressed concerns about expert testimony, but it has addressed bias only indirectly, by requiring lower courts to tighten standards of admissibility and to reject what some call “junk science.”