Judicial Review: Truth and burdens of proof

Greg Galler
District Court Judge

Sometimes people ask how I know who is telling the truth in court.  It surprises them to hear that I will likely never know the absolute truth. 

While some people do lie in court, more often people simply see, remember, or re-tell things differently. Something happened. People saw it, heard it, were involved in it, or maybe even caused it. A dispute arose, lawyers were hired, and a lawsuit began.

When they come to court, they have different memories, powers of observation, and abilities to describe what happened. This is no different from what we all see in everyday life. 

In your own life, you have, almost certainly, disagreed with someone about something that you each saw or heard. One of you may have said, “That’s not the way I saw it” or “I don’t remember it that way.” 

It doesn’t necessarily mean that one of you is not being truthful.  People simply have different abilities to observe, remember and re-tell. Disputes in court are no different. 

In law school, my Evidence professor summed it up by observing that “Truth is an historical accident.” The law recognizes and works with this in two ways.

First, the Rules of Evidence are designed to insure that only the most trustworthy evidence is considered. For example, rules limit the introduction of unauthenticated exhibits, require that witnesses have personal knowledge, and bar most hearsay evidence. These rules help the judge to get as close as possible to the actual truth of what occurred. 

Second, knowing that facts can almost never be established by absolute proof, lower standards are employed. This is the concept of “burdens of proof.” Society’s acceptance of this concept, allows disputes to be peaceably resolved in court. Plaintiffs, those who bring cases to court, must satisfy the required burden of proof.  

The burden in most civil cases is known as the “preponderance of the evidence” standard. This simply means that the greater weight of the evidence must persuade the judge in favor of the plaintiff’s claim. Imagine a scale standing in perfect balance. The weight on each side is equal. At the end of the case, any movement of the scale reflects the greater weight of the evidence. To prevail, the scale must move, at least to some degree, in favor of the plaintiff. If the evidence weighs in favor of the defendant, or if the evidence remains equal, then the plaintiff will not prevail. In a criminal case, the prosecutor is the plaintiff and must meet a higher burden of proof. The state must prove every element of its case beyond any “reasonable doubt.” 

This much higher standard of proof is designed to protect people from being wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. Whether the case involves a civil or a criminal matter, all any judge can do is to weigh the evidence consistently with common sense and life experiences. 

The judge then decides what the truth is, measured in accordance with the burden of proof, and acts accordingly.

Judge Galler is chambered in Washington County. 

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