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Federal Judge Steps Down from Panel over Evidence Rules
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Federal Judge Steps Down from Panel over Evidence Rules

Summary: Judge Jed Rakoff has resigned from an advisory committee after the Justice Department determined it could not examine the nature of evidence used in a trial.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a federal judge has resigned from a committee that was formed to advise the Justice Department on the use of scientific evidence. Department officials decided that the group could not examine how evidence is made available before a trial, and, in protest, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff stepped down from the panel.


On Wednesday, in a letter written by Judge Rakoff to his colleagues in the National Commission on Forensic Science, the judge explained that he would be stepping down after the Justice Department revealed its decision, calling it “unsupportable.” Judge Rakoff added, “I feel I have no choice” in deciding to resign.

Many argue that some forensic evidence is unreliable.

The commission was made up of over 30 individuals, and Judge Rakoff was the only federal judge selected. The panel’s purpose was to improve the reliability of forensic evidence after sloppy evidence processing in state, federal, and local labs led to the conviction of many suspects.

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Judge Rakoff was appointed to the federal bench by former president Bill Clinton. He has addressed many scientific issues in court, and has openly criticized the government’s decisions in many areas, such as the manner in which the Justice Department handled financial-misconduct probes and settlements the Securities and Exchange Commission made with banks.

Read about the Securities and Exchange Commission settlements here.

In the letter, Judge Rakoff explained he had been informed that Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, second in command at the Justice Department, determined that the commission would not review how scientific evidence is shared during the discovery phase of trial work. Discovery is the exchange of evidence between the parties in advance of a trial so that the parties can prepare their arguments for the courtroom.

Judge Rakoff explained that federal prosecutors have fewer discovery requirements regarding scientific evidence than plaintiffs do in civil lawsuits. Although Judge Rakoff did not detail which scientific areas he worries about the most, many other legal professionals have questioned arson science, handwriting analysis, ballistics, and other disciplines.

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The panel had discussed the discovery issues for months, and on Tuesday night, Judge Rakoff received a telephone call from officials at the Justice Department, informing him that the commission cannot study discovery issues.

The panel’s duty was not to look at specific cases, but rather to provide general guidance on how to make forensic science and testimony about it more trustworthy in future trials.

In 2012, it was determined that over 1,000 drunk driving cases may have had to be dismissed due to faulty tests.

Judge Rakoff wrote, “If an adversary does not know in advance sufficient information about the forensic expert and the methodological and evidentiary bases for that expert’s opinions, the testimony of the expert is nothing more than trial by ambush.” He added, “Does the department have to be reminded of the many cases of grossly inaccurate forensic testimony that led to the creation of the commission?”

The judge explained that it was difficult to avoid concluding that the restriction on the examination of discovery “is chiefly designed to preserve a courtroom advantage by avoiding even the possibility that Commission discussion might expose it as unfair.” According to the Washington Post, the judge felt that the Justice Department was trying to benefit prosecutors.

Emily Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, said, “While the department is disappointed in Judge Rakoff’s decision, this was a basic disagreement about the scope of the commission’s work.” She added that many of the proposed recommendations on discovery are actually already used in department practices.

Theodore Simon, the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, agreed with Judge Rakoff’s concerns. He said that his association “will continue to monitor the work of the commission and any obstacles placed in its path.”

Source: Wall Street Journal

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