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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


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.

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