• New U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Addressing Harmless Error Calls into Question Existing Ninth Circuit Standards
  • May 20, 2009 | Author: Peder K. Batalden
  • Law Firm: Horvitz & Levy LLP - Encino Office
  • In Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U. S. ____ (2009), the United States Supreme Court recently issued an important opinion addressing harmless error review in civil appeals. The harmless error doctrine requires appellate courts to disregard errors made by trial judges that do not affect the parties' substantial rights. For example, a trial judge's erroneous decision to admit a particular item of evidence may be harmless if other items of similar evidence were properly admitted.

    The Court's opinion in Sanders affects appellants who raise arguments about evidentiary errors, jury instructions, and many other rulings made by federal district courts. In particular, the opinion calls into question the Ninth Circuit's approach that once an appellant establishes an error was committed, the burden shifts to the appellee to show that the error was harmless. E.g., Obrey v. Johnson, 400 F.3d 691 (9th Cir. 2005). Under the Supreme Court's approach in Sanders, an appellate court may not presume that an error was harmful, and an appellant bears the burden of showing how the error was harmful in the overall context of the proceedings.