Wading into the Daubert Tide: Sargon Enterprises, Inc. v. University of Southern California
50 Pages Posted: 8 Feb 2013 Last revised: 11 Jun 2013
Date Written: February 7, 2013
There are two competing approaches to determining the admissibility of expert testimony, including scientific evidence. Under the traditional, Frye approach, the question is whether the expert is relying on a theory or technique that is generally accepted in the relevant specialty fields. At one time that test was employed by the federal courts as well as 46 states. However, in 1993 in its celebrated Daubert decision, the Supreme Court construed the Federal Rules of Evidence as impliedly overturning Frye. The Court derived a new validation test from the text of Federal Rule 702. As of 2013, only a minority of courts continue to adhere to Frye while a majority of states have embraced some version of the Daubert standard.
Although most states have adopted a version of the Daubert test, until recently the California Supreme Court continued to staunchly follow Frye. The California Supreme Court initially adopted the Frye test in 1976. In 1994, the year after the United States Supreme Court rendered Daubert, the California Supreme Court declined the invitation to abandon Frye.
However, as more jurisdictions shifted to Daubert, in a growing number of cases advocates urged the California courts to modify their position and incorporate some elements of the Daubert approach into California jurisprudence. In November of 2012, the California Supreme Court handed down its decision in Sargon. Sargon certainly represents a step toward the Daubert approach. In Sargon, the court approvingly cited Daubert as well as the two later cases in the Daubert trilogy, Joiner and Kumho. Moreover, in its opinion the court followed many of the essential teachings of Daubert, Joiner, and Kumho. Most importantly, the substance of the analysis in Sargon is strikingly similar to the Supreme Court’s analysis in Joiner.
In this light, some commentators are now declaring that California has joined the ranks of the Daubert jurisdictions. The purpose of this article is cautionary; the thesis of this article is that it is premature to proclaim that California is now a Daubert jurisdiction. To begin with, in footnote the Sargon court affirmed its commitment to Frye. Moreover, the facts in Sargon were so extreme that in future cases, attorneys will have a plausible argument for distinguishing Sargon. Finally, in Sargon the court emphasized that it was authorizing trial judges to conduct a carefully circumscribed inquiry. The court stopped well short of tasking trial judges to conduct the sort of probing inquiry that Daubert empowers federal trial judges to conduct under Federal Rule of Evidence 104(a). The California courts may have embarked on a gradual, incremental movement toward Daubert, but California is not there yet.
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