TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s highest court has struck down a 2013 state law, backed by Gov. Rick Scott, that changed the standard used by Florida to govern the admissibility of expert witness testimony.
In Feb. 16's majority opinion, the court asserted jurisdiction in procedural matters related Florida’s Evidence Code stating:
“It has been this Court’s policy to adopt, to the extent they are procedural, provisions of the Florida Evidence Code as they are enacted and amended by the Legislature. However, on occasion the Court has declined to adopt legislative changes to the Evidence Code because of significant concerns about the amendments, including concerns about the constitutionality of an amendment. In addition, the Court has declined to follow the Committee’s recommendation to adopt, to the extent it may be procedural, legislation creating section 766.102(12).”
The justices further expressed “grave constitutional concern” about Daubert and questioned whether adopting the federal standard would be “undermining the right to a jury trial while denying access to courts.”
In 2013, the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 7015, which directed courts to follow the federal standard when allowing certain scientific evidence into evidence. Known as the Daubert standard, the rule is based on holdings from several cases including 1993’s Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. Daubert essentially sets the ground rules to determine if certain scientific evidence or testimony is admissible.
Prior to HB 7015, Florida courts followed what is known as the Frye standard when determining the admissibility of scientific evidence. The Frye standard is based upon a 1923 federal case, Frye v. United States. In Frye, the court held that expert testimony must be grounded in and based on widely accepted scientific methods.
The key difference between the two holdings, according to a report by FloridaPolitics.com, is that Daubert essentially requires a hearing to determine the viability of expert testimony or evidence before allowing it to be presented into evidence. Frye, meanwhile, only requires the court to determine that the evidence or testimony is “generally excepted” by segments of the scientific community.
Justice Ricky Polston authored the dissenting opinion, stating “the majority’s and the committee’s 'grave constitutional concerns' regarding the Daubert standard are unfounded. We should adopt the Daubert standard as amended in the Florida Evidence Code by the Legislature in 2013.”
In an interview in March, William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, told the Florida Record that reaction to the 2013 legislation was split among the legal with “members of the Plaintiff’s Bar vociferously objecting to” changing the standard. Daubert is generally viewed as favorable to defendants. The Florida Record has placed calls to FJRI and Large seeking comment on the Supreme Court’s ruling.
HB 7015 was sponsored by District 32 Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yahala, with backing by Scott’s administration. Scott signed HB 7015 into law and it took effect July 1, 2013.
While the amendment became law in 2013, the state’s courts did not immediately follow suit, preferring to wait for the higher court to issue an opinion regarding jurisdiction of the matter. In May, the Bar Association’s Code and Rules of Evidence Committee disseminated a report addressed to then-committee Chair Timothy Moore expressing the position that state’s constitution concedes authority in court procedural matters to the court.
Calls to current Rules and Evidence Committee Chair Gregory Borgognoni were not returned by time of publication.
The case is No. SC16-181.