Federal Rules of Evidence

Trials are at the heart of criminal and civil litigation. A judge or a jury hears each side present their cases and determines who is right. But today, many cases are resolved without a trial. Sometimes they are dismissed because the court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case, or because the parties have no real disputes over the facts in the case. At other times, they are settled through negotiations or resolved outside of the courtroom in arbitration. But when cases go to trial, there must be rules in place to determine what facts can or cannot be introduced to the jury. We want to seek out the truth in a timely fashion, and details that can distract or confuse the jury should be left out.

The Federal Rules of Evidence control what evidence a jury may or may not hear at trial. They generally apply to both criminal and civil cases, but some rules apply to only to one set of cases or another. The rules focus on ensuring we have relevant evidence that does not unfairly prejudice a party, so it keeps out evidence that may cause the jury to react on emotion instead of basing a decision on the facts. We also want reliable evidence, so unreliable evidence, such as second-hand statements about what happened, stays out. We also want to ensure that certain relationships and communications are not disclosed to the jury, so some evidence is excluded because it is “privileged,” like communications between attorneys and their clients.

For many years, the rules of evidence were developed by judges as a matter of common law. But rules of evidence were drafted by the Supreme Court in 1972 and approved by Congress in 1975. They are regularly amended and updated. Unlike the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, Congress is often interested in amending the Federal Rules of Evidence to address matters it cares about, such as evidence relating to sexual assault or evidence about what jurors may or may not disclose about their proceedings. The Federal Rules of Evidence have been amended twenty-six times since 1975 with the most recent amendment taking effect on December 1, 2020. The next amendments are scheduled to take effect on December 1, 2023, and can be found at https://www.supremecourt.gov/orders/courtorders/frev23_5468.pdf. The following version of the Federal Rules of Evidence includes these amendments.

The official version of the Federal Rules of Evidence can be found at https://www.uscourts.gov/rules-policies/current-rules-practice-procedure.


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Rules and Laws for Civil Actions Copyright © 2024 by Stella Burch Elias; Derek T. Muller; Jason Rantanen; Caroline Sheerin; and Maya Steinitz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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