Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Co.
490 U.S. 504 (1989)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Co., 490 U.S. 504 (1989)

Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Co.

No. 87-1816

Argued January 18, 1989

Decided May 22, 1989

490 U.S. 504

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE THIRD CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In petitioner Green's product liability action against respondent Bock, the manufacturer of a machine that injured Green, Bock impeached Green's testimony by eliciting admissions that he had previously been convicted of burglary and a related felony. After the jury returned a verdict for Bock, Green argued on appeal that the District Court had erred by denying his pretrial motion to exclude the impeaching evidence. The Court of Appeals summarily affirmed the District Court's ruling, following Circuit precedent established in Diggs v. Lyons, 741 F.2d 577. Diggs held, inter alia, that Rule 609(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Evidence -- which specifies that evidence that a witness has been convicted of a felony "shall" be admitted for the purpose of attacking the witness' credibility "only if" the court determines that the probativeness of the evidence outweighs its prejudice "to the defendant" -- mandates admission for impeachment purposes of a civil plaintiff's prior felony convictions, and that the Rule's specific command forecloses the judicial exercise of discretion under Rule 403, which authorizes the exclusion of relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.

Held: Rule 609(a)(1) requires a judge to permit impeachment of a civil witness with evidence of prior felony convictions regardless of ensuant unfair prejudice to the witness or the party offering the testimony. Thus, the District Court did not err in allowing the jury to learn through impeaching cross-examination that Green was a convicted felon. Pp. 490 U. S. 509-527.

(a) The Rule's text is ambiguous with respect to its applicability in civil cases. By using the restrictive phrase "to the defendant," the Rule's plain language appears not only to command the weighing of prejudice to a civil defendant, but also to compel the automatic admissibility of prior felony conviction evidence detrimental to a civil plaintiff. An interpretation that would deny a civil plaintiff the same right to impeach an adversary's testimony that it grants a civil defendant is unacceptable; therefore, the Rule cannot mean what it says as far as civil trials are concerned. Pp. 490 U. S. 509-511.

(b) The history leading to enactment of the Rule as law establishes that Congress intended that only the accused in a criminal case should be

Page 490 U. S. 505

protected from unfair prejudice by the balancing requirement set out in Rule 609(a)(1). Pp. 490 U. S. 511-524.

(c) Rule 609(a)(1)'s exclusion of civil witnesses from its weighing language is a specific and mandatory command that impeachment of such witnesses be admitted into evidence, which command overrides a judge's general discretionary authority under Rule 403 to balance probative value against prejudice. Pp. 490 U. S. 524-526.

845 F.2d 1011, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 490 U. S. 527. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 490 U. S. 530.

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether Rule 609(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Evidence requires a judge to let a civil litigant impeach an adversary's credibility with evidence of the adversary's prior felony convictions. Because the Courts of Appeals have answered that question in different ways, we granted certiorari to resolve the conflict. 487 U.S. 1203 (1988).

Page 490 U. S. 506

While in custody at a county prison, petitioner Paul Green obtained work-release employment at a car wash. On his sixth day at work, Green reached inside a large dryer to try to stop it. A heavy rotating drum caught and tore off his right arm. Green brought this product liability action against respondent Bock Laundry Co. (Bock), manufacturer of the machine. At trial, Green testified that he had been instructed inadequately concerning the machine's operation and dangerous character. Bock impeached Green's testimony by eliciting admissions that he had been convicted of conspiracy to commit burglary and burglary, both felonies. The jury returned a verdict for Bock. On appeal, Green argued that the District Court had erred by denying his pretrial motion to exclude the impeaching evidence. The Court of Appeals summarily affirmed the District Court's ruling. Pet. for Cert. 9a-10a.

The Court of Appeals' disposition followed Circuit precedent established in Diggs v. Lyons, 741 F.2d 577 (CA3 1984), cert. denied,471 U. S. 1078 (1985). Writing for the panel majority, Judge Maris, who had headed the Advisory Committee that proposed a federal code of evidence to this Court, [Footnote 1] concluded in Diggs that Rule 609 mandated admission for impeachment purposes of a civil plaintiff's prior felony convictions. He relied on the legislative history of Rule 609 as establishing that Congress intended Rule 609 to govern both criminal and civil proceedings. 741 F.2d at 581. He also concluded that a judge may not balance prejudice and probativeness pursuant to Rule 403 [Footnote 2] in order to circumvent Rule

Page 490 U. S. 507

609(a)(2)'s requirement that all convictions pertaining to dishonesty -- often called crimen falsi evidence -- be admitted. Ibid. Rule 609's specific command, he wrote, forecloses judicial exercise of Rule 403 discretion to exclude evidence of felony convictions. Id. at 582. The only situation in which Rule 609(a) allows the trial judge discretion to bar impeachment by prior felony convictions is when admission would unduly prejudice the defendant in a criminal case. [Footnote 3] Ibid. Judge Maris concluded with this comment:

"[T]he scope of Rule 609 has been and is the subject of widespread controversy and strongly held divergent views. We have felt compelled to give the rule the effect which the plain meaning of its language and the legislative history require. We recognize that the mandatory admission of all felony convictions on the issue of credibility may in some cases produce unjust and even bizarre results. Evidence that a witness has in the past been convicted of manslaughter by automobile, for example, can have but little relevance to his credibility as a witness in a totally different matter. But if the rule is to be amended to eliminate these possibilities of injustice, it must be done by those who have the authority to amend the rules, the Supreme Court and the Congress. . . . It is not for us as enforcers of the rule to amend it under the guise of construing it."

Ibid.

Dissenting, Judge Gibbons acknowledged that "snippets of legislative history" show that four Members of Congress anticipated that a court might interpret Rule 609(a) to require impeachment of a witness by prior felony convictions irrelevant to the civil context. Id. at 583. Yet he remained unpersuaded that Congress as a whole intended "so ridiculous a result." Ibid. Instead, he attributed the Rules' silence

Page 490 U. S. 508

regarding impeachment of civil plaintiffs to "legislative oversight." Ibid. And he noted that other Circuits had concluded, contrary to the panel majority,

"that the mandatory admission feature of prior crimen falsi convictions does not apply to the admissibility of prior felony convictions in civil cases."

Ibid. Placing the use of prior felony conviction evidence outside the reach of the judge's discretion, he declared, "makes no sense whatever." Ibid.

Both the majority and dissenting opinions in Diggs convey dissatisfaction with automatic admissibility of prior felony convictions to impeach civil witnesses, especially civil plaintiffs. Indeed, criticism of this result is longstanding and widespread. [Footnote 4] Our task in deciding this case, however, is not to fashion the rule we deem desirable, but to identify the rule that Congress fashioned. We begin by considering the extent to which the text of Rule 609 answers the question before us. Concluding that the text is ambiguous with respect

Page 490 U. S. 509

to civil cases, we then seek guidance from legislative history and from the Rules' overall structure.

I

Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a) provides:

"General Rule. For the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness, evidence that the witness has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted if elicited from the witness or established by public record during cross-examination but only if the crime (1) was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year under the law under which the witness was convicted, and the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect to the defendant, or (2) involved dishonesty or false statement, regardless of the punishment."

By its terms, the rule requires a judge to allow impeachment of any witness with prior convictions for felonies not involving dishonesty "only if" the probativeness of the evidence is greater than its prejudice "to the defendant." [Footnote 5] Ibid. It follows that impeaching evidence detrimental to the prosecution in a criminal case "shall be admitted" without any such balancing. Ibid.

The Rule's plain language commands weighing of prejudice to a defendant in a civil trial as well as in a criminal trial. But that literal reading would compel an odd result in a case like this. Assuming that all impeaching evidence has at least minimal probative value, and given that the evidence of plaintiff Green's convictions had some prejudicial effect on his case -- but surely none on defendant Bock's -- balancing according to the strict language of Rule 609(a)(1) inevitably

Page 490 U. S. 510

leads to the conclusion that the evidence was admissible. In fact, under this construction of the Rule, impeachment detrimental to a civil plaintiff always would have to be admitted.

No matter how plain the text of the Rule may be, we cannot accept an interpretation that would deny a civil plaintiff the same right to impeach an adversary's testimony that it grants to a civil defendant. [Footnote 6] The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant certain fair trial rights not enjoyed by the prosecution, while the Fifth Amendment lets the accused choose not to testify at trial. In contrast, civil litigants in federal court share equally the protections of the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause. Given liberal federal discovery rules, the inapplicability of the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination, and the need to prove their case, civil litigants almost always must testify in depositions or at trial. Denomination as a civil defendant or plaintiff, moreover, is often happenstance based on which party filed first or on the nature of the suit. [Footnote 7] Evidence that a litigant or his witness is a convicted felon tends to shift a jury's focus from the worthiness of the litigant's position to the moral worth of the litigant himself. [Footnote 8] It is unfathomable why a civil plaintiff -- but not a civil defendant

Page 490 U. S. 511

-- should be subjected to this risk. Thus, we agree with the Seventh Circuit that, as far as civil trials are concerned, Rule 609(a)(1) "can't mean what it says." [Footnote 9] Campbell v. Greer, 831 F.2d 700, 703 (1987).

Out of this agreement flow divergent courses, each turning on the meaning of "defendant." The word might be interpreted to encompass all witnesses, civil and criminal, parties or not. See Green v. Shearson Lehman/American Express, Inc., 625 F.Supp. 382, 383 (ED Pa.1985) (dictum). It might be read to connote any party offering a witness, in which event Rule 609(a)(1)'s balance would apply to civil, as well as criminal, cases. E.g., Howard v. Gonzales, 658 F.2d 352 (CA5 1981). Finally, "defendant" may refer only to the defendant in a criminal case. See, e.g., Campbell, 831 F.2d at 703. These choices spawn a corollary question: must a judge allow prior felony impeachment of all civil witnesses as well as all criminal prosecution witnesses, or is Rule 609(a)(1) inapplicable to civil cases, in which event Rule 403 would authorize a judge to balance in such cases? Because the plain text does not resolve these issues, we must examine the history leading to enactment of Rule 609 as law.

II

At common law, a person who had been convicted of a felony was not competent to testify as a witness.

"[T]he disqualification arose as part of the punishment for the crime, only later being rationalized on the basis that such a person was unworthy of belief."

3 J. Weinstein & M. Berger, Weinstein's Evidence

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