By JIM SAUNDERS
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 16, 2017......... Pointing to "grave constitutional concerns," the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a controversial 2013 move by lawmakers to tighten a standard for expert witnesses in legal cases.
The 4-2 ruling blocked the use of a standard backed by business groups but opposed by plaintiffs' attorneys and The Florida Bar Board of Governors.
Testimony from expert witnesses can play a crucial role in complicated civil lawsuits and in criminal cases that involve scientific evidence. While the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott approved the revamped standard in 2013, the Supreme Court has constitutional authority to determine rules and procedures for the court system.
The debate focused on lawmakers' decision to move to what is known in the legal world as the "Daubert" standard, which is more-restrictive than the state's longstanding expert-witness standard. Federal courts use the Daubert standard, but opponents of using it in Florida courts said it make cases more expensive and time-consuming --- effectively making it harder for people to pursue lawsuits.
In Thursday's ruling, the Supreme Court majority pointed to arguments by opponents that raised "grave constitutional concerns."
"Those concerns include undermining the right to a jury trial and denying access to the courts," said the ruling by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. "While the (Supreme) Court does not address the constitutionality of a statute or proposed rule within the context of a rules case, the fact that there may be 'grave concerns about the constitutionality of the amendment' has been a basis previously for the (Supreme) Court not adopting an amendment to the evidence code to the extent it is procedural."
But Justice Ricky Polston, in a dissent joined by Justice Charles Canady, said the federal-court system and other states have successfully used the Daubert standard.
"Has the entire federal court system for the last 23 years as well as 36 states denied parties' rights to a jury trial and access to courts? Do only Florida and a few other states have a constitutionally sound standard for the admissibility of expert testimony? Of course not," Polston wrote.
Justice Alan Lawson, who joined the court at the end of December, did not take part in the ruling.
William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, a legal group aligned with businesses, echoed Polston's dissent Thursday.
"The Florida Supreme Court seems to be implying the entire federal court system for the last 23 years has been denying a citizens' right to a jury trial and access to the courts, through the use of the federal Daubert standard," Large said in an email. "If that is the case, why has the Florida Supreme Court been citing federal courts for constitutional precedent for the past 23 years?"
Supporters of the Daubert standard have argued it can help prevent the use of "junk science" in court cases. The standard includes a three-part test in determining whether expert testimony can be admitted. That test involves whether the testimony is "based upon sufficient facts or data;" whether it is the "product of reliable principles and methods;" and whether a witness has "applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case."
That is more restrictive than a test long used in Florida courts, known as the "Frye" standard.