Why Civil and Criminal Procedure Are So Different: A Forgotten History

October 31, 2017

Much has been written about the origins of civil procedure. Yet little is known about the origins of criminal procedure, even though it governs how millions of cases in federal and state courts are litigated each year. This Article’s examination of criminal procedure’s origin story questions the prevailing notion that civil and criminal procedure require different treatment. The Article’s starting point is the first draft of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure—confidential in 1941 and since forgotten. The draft reveals that reformers of criminal procedure turned to the new rules of civil procedure for guidance. The contents of this draft shed light on an extraordinary moment: reformers initially proposed that all litigation in the United States, civil and criminal, be governed by a unified procedural code. The implementation of this original vision of a unified code would have had dramatic implications for how criminal law is practiced and perceived today. The advisory committee’s final product in 1944, however, set criminal litigation on a very different course. Transcripts of the committee’s initial meetings reveal that the final code of criminal procedure emerged from the clash of ideas presented by two committee members, James Robinson and Alexander Holtzoff. Holtzoff’s traditional views would ultimately persuade other members, cleaving criminal procedure from civil procedure.

Since then, differences in civil and criminal litigation have become entrenched and normalized. Yet, at the time the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure were drafted, a unified code was not just a plausible alternative but the only proposal. The draft’s challenge to the prevailing notion that civil and criminal wrongs inherently require different procedural treatment is a critical contribution to the growing debate over whether the absence of discovery in criminal procedure is justified in light of discovery tools afforded by civil procedure. The first draft of criminal procedure, which called for uniform rules to govern proceedings in all civil and criminal courtrooms, suggests the possibility that current resistance to unification is, to a significant degree, historically contingent.

November 2017

No. 2

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