“Cross-examination is the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” So wrote John Henry Wigmore, legendary judge and legal scholar. However, when a college student is faced with a disciplinary proceeding, cross examination has not been required by the courts, and is generally not allowed. This is true even though a suspension or expulsion can affect a person’s ability to continue education or find jobs.
No more, says the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has ruled that some form of confrontation may be constitutionally required in certain cases.
“John Doe” was a University of Cincinnati student who engaged in a sexual encounter with “Jane Roe,” and believed it to be consensual. However, three weeks later, Jane made a complaint to the University that John had violated the Code of Conduct by sexually assaulting her.
A hearing was held, but Jane did not appear. John expressed that he could not properly present his defense without being able to question her account. The hearing panel proceeded anyway, and found John responsible for a sexual assault, and issued a two year suspension.
John filed a lawsuit to stop the suspension, and the federal district court granted it. The University appealed, but the 6th Circuit upheld the ruling. The court said that due process is guaranteed in college disciplinary hearings, and that in a “he said/she said” credibility contest, especially where hearsay evidence was used against John, due process may include some form of confrontation. Without it, the proceeding may be “fundamentally unfair.”
Recognizing that direct cross-examination may be traumatic, especially in a case of sexual assault, the court clarified that confrontation may be indirect – for example, the accused may submit cross examination questions to be asked by a neutral hearing officer. Nonetheless, this case is significant in opening the door to confrontation in a student disciplinary hearing where important rights are at stake, and credibility is a critical issue.
The case is Doe v. University of Cincinnati, U.S. Court of Appeals, 6th Circuit, 9/25/17