Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Civil Confrontation

The Confrontation Clause, of course, only applies in favor of a criminal defendant.  But it has long appeared to me that it reflects a broader principle in common-law adjudication, that ordinarily at least a party should have a chance to cross-examine those who testify against the party.  The Supreme Court has recognized that there is a constitutional basis, in due process, for such a right. But I was curious as to the circumstances in which this right has been asserted and what the response of courts has been.  I asked Nick Klenow, a former student of mine, to do some digging.   Nick, who graduated from Michigan Law earlier this month, has produced a Note, Due Process:  Protecting the Confrontation Right in Civil Cases, that I'm pleased to post here.  This memo is Nick's work, and the conclusions are his, not mine; I offered some guidance before he set out and a few very minor editorial suggestions.  I think the Note shows the wide range of circumstances in civil proceedings in which a confrontation right has been asserted, and often upheld, as a matter of due process.

As Nick's Note suggests, just what the bounds of the civil confrontation right are or should be is a difficult, perhaps intractable, issue; the answers seem highly context-dependent.  But I'll offer one comment to provide some theoretical perspective. Let's suppose there is a civil proceeding in which the state proposes to deprive an individual of some valuable right, privilege, or asset.  The state calls a witness and examines her, and at the conclusion of the direct the judge or other presiding official excuses her.  The individual whose rights are at stake protests, saying that he would like to ask some questions as well.  And the adjudicator responds, "No need.  I don't want to take the time.  That testimony was good enough."  It seems clear to me that this has to be, or at least can be in many circumstances, a violation of due process.  This, of course, is a strong case, but it demonstrates that the set of circumstances in which there is a violation of due process for failing to provide a confrontation opportunity in a civil case is not empty.  How much further the right applies -- for example, when instead of presenting a live witness the state instead presents an affidavit prepared for the sole purpose of creating evidence for the proceeding -- is the tricky question.