Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Company/Dissent Blackmun
Justice BLACKMUN, with whom Justice BRENNAN and Justice MARSHALL join, dissenting.
Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a) has attracted much attention during its relatively short life. This is due in no small part to its poor and inartful drafting. See, e.g., 10 J. Moore & H. Bendix, Moore's Federal Practice § 609.14, p. V-148 (2d ed. 1988); Foster, Rule 609(a) in the Civil Context: A Recommendation for Reform, 57 Ford.L.Rev. 1, 4 (1988); Younger, Three Essays on Character and Credibility under the Federal Rules of Evidence, 5 Hofstra L.Rev. 7, 11-12 (1976); Savikas, New Concepts in Impeachment: Rule 609(a), Federal Rules of Evidence, 57 Chicago Bar Rec. 76 (1975). As noted by the majority, ante, at 510-511, the Rule's use of the word "defendant" creates inescapable ambiguity. The majority concludes that Rule 609(a)(1) cannot mean what it says on its face. Ante, at 511. I fully agree.
I fail to see, however, why we are required to solve this riddle of statutory interpretation by reading the inadvertent word "defendant" to mean "criminal defendant." I am persuaded that a better interpretation of the Rule would allow the trial court to consider the risk of prejudice faced by any party, not just a criminal defendant. Applying the balancing provisions of Rule 609(a)(1) to all parties would have prevented the admission of unnecessary and inflammatory evidence in this case and would prevent other similar unjust results until Rule 609(a) is repaired, as it must be. The result the Court reaches today, in contrast, endorses "the irrationality and unfairness " ante, at 524, of denying the trial court the ability to weigh the risk of prejudice to any party before admitting evidence of a prior felony for purposes of impeachment.
The majority's lengthy recounting of the legislative history of Rule 609, ante, at 513-514, demonstrates why almost all that history is entitled to very little weight. Because the proposed rule changed so often-and finally was enacted as a compromise between the House and the Senate-much of the commentary cited by the majority concerns versions different from the Rule Congress finally enacted.
The only item of legislative history that focuses on the Rule as enacted is the Report of the Conference Committee, H.R.Conf.Rep. No. 93-1597 (1974). Admittedly, language in the Report supports the majority's position: the Report mirrors the Rule in emphasizing the prejudicial effect on the defendant, and also uses the word "convict" to describe the potential outcome. Id., at 9-10, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1974, p. 7103. But the Report's draftsmanship is no better than the Rule's, and the Report's plain language is no more reliable an indicator of Congress' intent than is the plain language of the Rule itself.
Because the slipshod drafting of Rule 609(a)(1) demonstrates that clarity of language was not the Conference's forte, I prefer to rely on the underlying reasoning of the Report, rather than on its unfortunate choice of words, in ascertaining the Rule's proper scope. The Report's treatment of the Rule's discretionary standard consists of a single paragraph. After noting that the Conference was concerned with prejudice to a defendant, the Report, at 9-10, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1974, p. 7103 states:
"The danger of prejudice to a witness other than the defendant (such as injury to the witness' reputation in his community) was considered and rejected by the Conference as an element to be weighed in determining admissibility. It was the judgment of the Conference that the danger of prejudice to a nondefendant witness is outweighed by the need for the trier of fact to have as much relevant evidence on the issue of credibility as possible. Such evidence should only be excluded where it presents a danger of improperly influencing the outcome of the trial by persuading the trier of fact to convict the defendant on the basis of his prior criminal record."
The Report indicates that the Conference determined that any felony conviction has sufficient relevance to a witness' credibility to be admitted, even if the felony had nothing directly to do with truthfulness or honesty. In dealing with the question of undue prejudice, however, the Conference drew a line: it distinguished between two types of prejudice, only one of which it permitted the trial court to consider.
As the Conference observed, admitting a prior conviction will always "prejudice" a witness, who, of course, would prefer that the conviction not be revealed to the public. The Report makes clear, however, that this kind of prejudice to the witness' life outside the courtroom is not to be considered in the judicial balancing required by Rule 609(a)(1). Rather, the kind of prejudice the court is instructed to be concerned with is prejudice which "presents a danger of improperly influencing the outcome of the trial." Congress' solution to that kind of prejudice was to require judicial supervision: the conviction may be admitted only if "the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect to the defendant." Rule 609(a)(1).
Although the Conference expressed its concern in terms of the effect on a criminal defendant, the potential for prejudice to the outcome at trial exists in any type of litigation, whether criminal or civil, and threatens all parties to the litigation. The Report and the Rule are best read as expressing Congress' preference for judicial balancing whenever there is a chance that justice shall be denied a party because of the unduly prejudicial nature of a witness' past conviction for a crime that has no direct bearing on the witness' truthfulness. In short, the reasoning of the Report suggests that by "prejudice to the defendant," Congress meant "prejudice to a party," as opposed to the prejudicial effect of the revelation of a prior conviction to the witness' own reputation.
It may be correct, as Justice SCALIA notes in his opinion concurring in the judgment, that interpreting "prejudicial effect to the defendant" to include only "prejudicial effect to [a] criminal defendant," and not prejudicial effect to other categories of litigants as well, does the "least violence to the text," ante, at 529, if what we mean by "violence" is the interpolation of excess words or the deletion of existing words. But the reading endorsed by Justice SCALIA and the majority does violence to the logic of the only rationale Members of Congress offered for the Rule they adopted.
Certainly the possibility that admission of a witness' past conviction will improperly determine the outcome at trial is troubling when the witness' testimony is in support of a criminal defendant. The potential, however, is no less real for other litigants. Unlike Justice SCALIA, I do not approach the Rules of Evidence, which by their terms govern both civil and criminal proceedings, with the presumption that their general provisions should be read to "provid[e] special protection to defendants in criminal cases." Ibid. Rather, the Rules themselves specify that they "shall be construed to secure fairness in administration . . . to the end that the truth may be ascertained and proceedings justly determined" in all cases. Rule 102. The majority's result does not achieve that end.
The interpretation the majority adopts today, which limits the word "defendant" to mean less than it appears to mean on its face, creates an additional danger: the Rule as so inter preted is a trap for the unwary. As noted by the majority, the "Rule's plain language commands weighing of prejudice to a defendant in a civil trial as well as in a criminal trial." Ante, at 509. One of the primary purposes for enacting a set of evidentiary rules is to present precise answers to frequently posed questions. "A codification should be so wrought that it supplies answers to a lawyer's questions simpler, more comprehensible, and more easily found than those the lawyer could discover without the codification." Younger, Introduction, Symposium: The Federal Rules of Evidence, 12 Hofstra L.Rev. 251, 252 (1984). Relying on the plain language of Rule 609(a)(1), an attorney representing a civil defendant might well instruct his client's witness to take the stand, believing that a judge would pass upon the question whether "the probative value of admitting" the evidence of his prior conviction "outweighs its prejudicial effect." Yet under the majority's view, reliance on the plain language of the Rule would have been error on counsel's part. Now every lawyer who takes Rule 609(a) at face value will commit the same error, until the language of the Rule is changed. While in theory it is easy to presume that every busy practicing attorney keeps abreast of every single one of this Court's decisions, in the "real world" this obviously is not the case. The implications of the majority's opinion today require every lawyer who relies upon a Federal Rule of Evidence, or a Federal Rule of Criminal, Civil, or Appellate Procedure, to look beyond the plain language of the Rule in order to determine whether this Court, or some court controlling within the jurisdiction, has adopted an interpretation that takes away the protection the plain language of the Rule provides.
As I see it, therefore, our choice is between two interpretations of Rule 609(a)(1), neither of which is completely consistent with the Rule's plain language. The majority's interpretation takes protection away from l tigants-i.e., civil defendants-who would have every reason to believe themselves entitled to the judicial balancing offered by the Rule. The alternative interpretation-which I favor-also departs somewhat from the plain language, but does so by extending the protection of judicial supervision to a larger class of litigants-i.e., to all parties. Neither result is compelled by the statutory language or the legislative history, but for me the choice between them is an easy one. I find it proper, as a general matter and under the dictates of Rule 102, to construe the Rule so as to avoid "unnecessary hardship," see Burnet v. Guggenheim, 288 U.S. 280, 285, 53 S.Ct. 369, 370, 77 L.Ed. 748 (1933), and to produce a sensible result. See, e.g., sources listed by the Court, ante, at 512-513, n. 11.
This case should have been decided on the basis of whether the Bock Laundry Machine Company designed and sold a dangerously defective machine without providing adequate warnings. The fact that Paul Green was a convicted felon, in a work-release program at a county prison, has little, if anything, to do with these issues. We cannot know precisely why the jury refused to compensate him for the sad and excruciating loss of his arm, but there is a very real possibility that it was influenced improperly by his criminal record. I believe that this is not a result Congress conceivably could have intended, and it is not a result this Court should endorse.
As the majority concludes otherwise, my hope is that Rule 609(a)(1) will be corrected without delay, preferably into a form that allows judicial oversight over, at the least, the use of any felony conviction that does not bear directly on a witness' honesty. It is encouraging that some efforts in this direction appear to be underway, see ante, at 523, n. 29, and that the damage Congress caused by its poor draftmanship soon may be undone.
I respectfully dissent.