United States v. Scheffer

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: Randon Bragdon's Dental Office

DOCKET NO.: 96-1133
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces

CITATION: 523 US 303 (1998)
ARGUED: Nov 03, 1997
DECIDED: Mar 31, 1998

Kim L. Sheffield - Argued the cause for the respondent
Michael R. Dreeben - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

While defending himself before a military court martial on, among other things, substance abuse charges, airman Edward G. Scheffer sought to introduce his polygraph examination results. The results indicated there was "no deception" in Scheffer's denial that he used drugs while enlisted. Relying on Military Rule of Evidence 707 ("Rule 707"), prohibiting the use of polygraph results in court-martial proceedings, the military judge refused Scheffer's request to admit his results into evidence. On successive appeals, following his conviction on all charges, the Air Force Court of Appeals affirmed but the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces reversed, finding the evidentiary exclusion to be unconstitutional. The United States appealed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Does Military Rule of Evidence 707, excluding the admission of polygraph results into evidence, violate a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to present a fair defense?

Media for United States v. Scheffer

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 03, 1997 in United States v. Scheffer

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 96-1133, United States v. Edward G. Scheffer.

Mr. Dreeben.

Michael R. Dreeben:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Polygraph evidence is opinion evidence about credibility.

Based on inherent doubts about the reliability of polygraph evidence and the burdens of litigating about polygraph results, it has long been banned from courtrooms in a majority of the States.

In 1991, the President adopted the same rule for military courts martial.

Exercising delegated authority from Congress, the President promulgated Rule 707, which makes polygraph evidence per se inadmissible in military courts martials.

That determination is constitutionally valid for three main reasons.

First, the reliability of the polygraph remains unproven.

Second, polygraph evidence is not necessary to help the trier of fact perform its core function of determining credibility of witnesses, and third, the costs of litigating about the reliability of polygraph evidence on a case-by-case basis outweigh any limited probative value that the polygraph may have.

William H. Rehnquist:

Would that have been the... was that the consequence of the Armed Forces Court of Appeals opinion here that the validity of each individual polygraph examination had to be tested in each case?

Michael R. Dreeben:

I think that's correct, Mr. Chief Justice.

In 1987, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, then the Court of Appeal... Military Appeals, determined that the per se rule against polygraph evidence which had prevailed in the military should be dropped, and that individual defendants should have the opportunity to litigate about it in each case, and in 1991 the evident response to that was to reinstate the per se rule that had been prevalent in courts across the country as well as the military courts.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

How is it handled in other jurisdictions where there's no per se rule in effect?

Is it treated like any other bit of scientific evidence?

Michael R. Dreeben:

It is not, Justice O'Connor.

In the States, 27 States have per se rules; 22 States allow polygraph evidence into... to be admitted only if there is a stipulation between the parties so that the parties have agreed to it.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And so from your research no State is treating it like other expert testimony, in effect.

Michael R. Dreeben:

One State is.

The State of New Mexico is allowing polygraph evidence in on a routine basis, provided that a very strict list of procedural requirements are satisfied, but--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

But even New Mexico doesn't follow the typical expert testimony approach.

Michael R. Dreeben:

--I think that that's fair.

The requirements are spelled out in the statute with a--

Sandra Day O'Connor:


Michael R. Dreeben:

--far greater degree of specificity than for other expert testimony.

Now, in the Federal system--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Daubert, of course, is in the civil context, but would you say that the petitioner's... pardon me, that the respondent's position here is consistent generally with what we held in Daubert?

Michael R. Dreeben:

--I think the respondent's position here is... goes quite a bit further than Daubert.

Daubert, of course, is simply an interpretation of Federal Rule of Evidence 702.

The respondent's position here is that the Constitution prohibits any promulgator of a system of evidentiary rules from establishing a per se rule.