Last spring, Robby Sanoff complained in this space about the problem resulting from appellate courts’ refusal to give appropriate discretion to district judges in performing their gatekeeping function under Daubert. As Robby put it:
The difference between “shaky but admissible” and unreliable and inadmissible evidence would seem to be entirely in the eye of the beholder.
Robby will not be pleased by last’s week’s decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Alabama Power, reversing a district court order excluding EPA’s expert testimony in support of its NSR enforcement action against Alabama Power. The Court majority performed an extensive review of the testimony provided in the Daubert hearing below, and concluded that the district court’s decision was clearly erroneous. (For those of you concerned with the merits of these cases, the question was whether EPA’s model, which clearly applied to determinations of emissions increases for baseload plants, could be applied as well to cycling plants generally and the plants at issue in the case in particular.)
The case is particularly interesting because Judge Hodges, taking Robby’s view, dissented. As Judge Hodges noted, prior to the Supreme Court decision in General Electric v. Joiner, appellate courts did not grant significant discretion to district courts in exclusion rulings. However, Joiner made clear that the abuse of discretion standard applies even in outcome-determinative exclusion rulings.
Next, Judge Hodges noted that, in Daubert rulings, there should be a “heavy thumb – really a thumb and a finger or two – that is put on the district court’s side of the scale.” He then rehearsed the actual statistics on Daubert reversals in the 11th Circuit: 3 reversals out of 54 cases.
Finally, Judge Hodges conducted a brief review of evidence tending to support the district court’s conclusion and determined that its decision was not “a clear error in judgment.” Concluding that a different result might be appropriate if review were de novo, Judge Hodges quoted Daubert itself:
We recognize that, in practice, a gatekeeping role for the judge, no matter how flexible, inevitably on occasion will prevent the jury from learning of authentic insights and innovations. That, nevertheless, is the balance that is struck by Rules of Evidence designed not for the exhaustive search for cosmic understanding but for the particularized resolution of legal disputes.
Decisions such as this have to be discouraging to district court judges, as Robby noted. It’s worth pointing at that Judge Hodges is actually a district court judge, sitting on the court of appeals by designation. It seems fitting that the district judge on the panel would be the judge vainly trying to protect the discretion of district judges in Daubert matters.