Law School Case Brief
Elkins v. Superior Court - 41 Cal. 4th 1337, 63 Cal. Rptr. 3d 483, 163 P.3d 160 (2007)
The law provides specific exceptions to the general rule excluding hearsay evidence (e.g., Evid. Code, § 1220 et seq.), including those governing the admission of affidavits or declarations. For example, in the marital dissolution context, Fam. Code, § 2336, requires various items of proof of fact to be submitted to the court in support of a default judgment and requires such proof to be in the form of an affidavit. § 2336, subd. (a). But there is no general statutory exception to the hearsay rule for contested marital dissolution trials. On the contrary, the existence of a specific statutory exception for default judgments, where an adversary proceeding is waived or forfeited, only serves to support the general rule that hearsay declarations are inadmissible at contested marital dissolution trials.
A husband represented himself during a trial conducted in marital dissolution proceedings instituted by his wife. A local superior court rule and a trial scheduling order in the family law court provided that in dissolution trials, parties had to present their case by means of written declarations. The trial court asserted that the promulgation of the rule and order came within its power to govern the proceedings before it and that its rule and order were consistent with constitutional and statutory provisions. The Court of Appeals summarily denied the husband’s petition for writ of mandate or prohibition that challenged the rule and order.
Did the trial court err in sanctioning the husband by excluding the bulk of his evidence simply because he failed, prior to trial, to file a declaration establishing the admissibility of his trial evidence?
The Supreme Court of California held that the rule and order were inconsistent with the law. Pursuant to state law, including Fam. Code, § 210, marital dissolution trials proceeded under the same general rules of procedure governing other civil trials. Written testimony in the form of a declaration constituted hearsay under Evid. Code, § 1200, and was subject to statutory provisions governing the introduction of such evidence. The court's interpretation of the hearsay rule was consistent with various statutes affording litigants a day in court, including the opportunity pursuant to Evid. Code, §§ 210, 351, to present all relevant, competent evidence on material issues, ordinarily through the oral testimony of witnesses testifying in the presence of the trier of fact. The trial court erred in sanctioning the husband by excluding the bulk of his evidence simply because he failed, prior to trial, to file a declaration establishing the admissibility of his trial evidence. The sanction was disproportionate and inconsistent with the policy favoring determination of cases on their merits.
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