The Adversarial Myth: Appellate Court Extra-Record Factfinding
79 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2011 Last revised: 5 Jan 2012
Date Written: 2011
The United States’ commitment to adversarial justice is a defining feature of its legal system. Standing doctrine, for example, is supposed to ensure that courts can rely on adverse parties to present the facts courts need to resolve disputes. Although the U.S. legal system generally lives up to this adversarial ideal, it sometimes does not. Appellate courts often look outside the record the parties developed before the trial court, turning instead to their own independent research and to factual claims in amicus briefs. This deviation from the adversarial process is an important respect in which the nation’s adversarial commitment is more myth than reality. This myth is problematic for many reasons, including the fact that it obscures the extent to which some of the most significant cases the Supreme Court decides, such as Citizens United v. FEC, rely upon “facts” that have not been subjected to rigorous adversarial testing. The adversarial myth exists because the U.S. legal system’s current procedures were designed to address adjudicative facts — facts particularly within the knowledge of the parties — but many cases turn instead on legislative facts — more general facts about the state of the world. Recognizing this distinction between adjudicative and legislative facts helps identify those cases in which existing practices undermine, rather than promote, adversarial justice. This Article concludes with suggestions for reform, including liberalizing standing doctrine when legislative facts are at issue. If courts are going to turn to nonparties for help in resolving disputes of legislative fact, it is better that they be brought into the process earlier so the factual claims they offer can be rigorously tested.
Keywords: constitutional law, courts, evidence, judges, jurisprudence, appellate review, fact-finding, adversarial system
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation