California's Dueling Harmless Error Standards: Approaches to Federal Constitutional Error in Civil Proceedings and Establishing the Proper Test for Dependency

Western State University Law Review, Vol. 35, No. 433, Spring 2008

32 Pages Posted: 14 Oct 2008 Last revised: 22 Sep 2009

Date Written: April 13, 2008


Civil and criminal appellate review of lower court proceedings, for the most part, are seen as two distinct processes with differing standards for reversal of mistakes by the trial court. Indeed, for forty years, California appellate courts generally have applied one discrete test for harmless error in civil proceedings, while reserving a stricter standard exclusively for federal constitutional error in criminal cases, a distinction predicated on the fundamental rights at stake in state criminal trials. In appeals from convictions in California state criminal cases, errors rising to a federal constitutional dimension are governed by the standard of Chapman v. California, which requires that these errors be proven by the state to be harmless beyond all reasonable doubt. The more lenient standard (for the trial court) of People v. Watson, which holds errors of state law and procedure harmless unless there is a reasonable probability that such error prejudiced the outcome, is generally applicable to civil cases. Where a fundamental right such as personal liberty may be erroneously infringed upon, the logic goes, greater protection of such a right is required, in contrast to the errors merely of state statutory or procedural nature that by and large arise in state civil trials.

However, on several important occasions civil cases enter a gray area involving the suspension or infringement of fundamental constitutional rights. As a result, for the same forty years, appellate courts in the state have varied considerably regarding which of the two standards to apply in assessing the harmlessness of federal constitutional errors arising in civil proceedings. This twilight zone means that little definitive guidance exists for courts evaluating the effect of error in civil cases that nonetheless implicate fundamental rights. Such circumstances include, for example, involuntary civil commitments for sexually violent predators and mentally disordered offenders, conservatorship and competency hearings, and child protection and parental severance ("dependency") proceedings. Given the lack of guidance from higher courts, California appellate courts have varied widely regarding which harmless error standard should be applied to federal constitutional errors in such civil cases.

On appellate review of federal constitutional error arising in civil cases, the harmless error test a court applies may be dispositive of the outcome of the case. Moreover, the degree of protection that a litigant's constitutional rights receive may depend on the choice of harmless error test. Without a clear harmless error standard established for federal constitutional error in these instances, outcomes are rendered unpredictable and the level of protection afforded the affected parties' federal constitutional rights is problematically inconsistent.

Dependency proceedings present a complex case for harmless error analysis due to the unique rules governing dependency and the separate, often-conflicting fundamental rights of both parents and minor children. So, it is little wonder that this area has provoked quite divergent applications by different California appellate districts, with a consequent lack of guidance for all courts across the state. The California Supreme Court has never reached the open question of which harmless error standard should apply in dependency appeals, nor does United States Supreme Court precedent illuminate the matter. As a result, California appellate courts remain split on the issue. Outside of the judicial system, too, no clear consensus exists among scholars or practitioners; some commentators even go as far as to advocate reversal per se for certain federal constitutional errors in dependency proceedings, precluding harmless error analysis altogether; others propose the application of an intermediate "clear and convincing evidence" standard somewhere between Chapman and Watson.

This Article argues for the application of the Chapman v. California harmless error standard on appeal when rights of federal constitutional magnitude arise in dependency proceedings. Part II provides an overview of the evolution of harmless error analysis in California appeals, and describes the People v. Watson test used for review of virtually all error in civil proceedings and the Chapman v. California "constitutional" test applied to constitutional error in criminal appeals. Part III explores the variety of applications of the Chapman and Watson standards to non-dependency civil proceedings, such as involuntary civil commitments, and identifies a perceptible trend toward application of Chapman in many instances. Part IV addresses the fundamental rights implicated by dependency proceedings and summarizes the inconsistency in California cases as to which harmless error standard should be applied to dependency reviews. Part V concludes that the Chapman standard best protects fundamental constitutional rights for both parents and children in the dependency context.

Keywords: juvenile, dependency, appellate, harmless error, standards of review, standards of reversal, constitutional rights, law, California, fundamental rights, children's rights, appeal, civil proceedings, federal constitutional error

Suggested Citation

Rasch, Meehan, California's Dueling Harmless Error Standards: Approaches to Federal Constitutional Error in Civil Proceedings and Establishing the Proper Test for Dependency (April 13, 2008). Western State University Law Review, Vol. 35, No. 433, Spring 2008 , Available at SSRN:

Meehan Rasch (Contact Author)

USC Gould School of Law ( email )

699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States

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