I like seeing arguments from a thousand feet up. Having the bird’s eye view will allow you to see the arguments, the rules, and the purpose of the rules all at once. I also like arguments to be simplified. That way you can know where to focus. With that in mind, I am going to use a very simple situation to illustrate each category of the rules: a child bringing home his report card to his parents. Everyone can relate.
It is the last day of school, and the mother knows that it is report card day. When the child comes home, the mother asks the child about his grades. It is evident that the child is in no hurry to hand over his finals grades. The child tells her that he wants to show her the report card of his friend Billy who goes to another school. The mother says that Billy’s report card is irrelevant (Rule 401) and because it is irrelevant, she does not want to see it (Rule 402). What she cares about is the child’s grades.
The mother plans on showing the child’s report card to the father and compare it to the older sister’s report card, who always does well in school. The child objects to this. He tells the mother, while the sister’s report card is relevant to the issue of how well I am doing compared to my siblings, it is far too prejudicial to me and is an unfair comparison (Rule 403).
The child now has to go to his father to explain his bad grades. His mother begins to tell the father that this is typical of the child and that he has always done poorly at school. The child objects to this and claims, “Just because I have done poorly in my past, does not mean that I did poorly this time. People can change and get better grades.” (404: Character evidence not admissible to prove conduct). The father agrees, but then says he wants to see the child’s prior report cards. He believes this shows that bad grades are not a mistake (Rule 404(b)).
The child wants to prove to his parents that he is a good student, so he calls his sister from the kitchen to come over. He asks her what her opinion is of his studiousness. She says that she has a very good opinion of his grades and his overall reputation as a student (404 (a)).
The mother, not believing any of this, then asks the sister a question. She asks her whether or not she knew that the child had received a D in science last year (405 (a)). The sister did not know that.
Now that the child has said that he has such a good reputation as a student, the mother calls in the older brother from the dining room. She asks the older brother what the child’s reputation is around school for studying. The older brother gives a rather harsh critique (404 (a)).
Now that the father and mother are beginning to get upset about this child’s poor school performance, the child asks if he can call his neighbor’s child, Tom, over. Tom tells the parents that the child comes over to his house every day to study. After Tom is done saying all of this, the father asks Tom one question. “Tom, isn’t it true that you are currently grounded by your parents for lying to them?” Tom immediately denies this. The father says that he is going to call his parents right now to confirm. The child objects and states, “Father, we are here for me and my grades, let’s not get distracted on something not related.” (608 (b))
The father agrees. But he says he wants to show Tom one thing. “Tom, this is a note I found. It says that you and my child agreed to fabricate a story about his grades and that my child would pay you his allowance. How can we trust you Tom, when you clearly have a motive to misrepresent the truth?”
The father exclaims that this note is proof that the child is a poor student. The grandmother, who has been watching the whole time, calmly walks over and tells the father, “While it is pretty clear that Tom cannot be trusted, I don’t believe that note is reliable enough to prove that your child is a bad student.” (608: Impeachment versus substantive evidence).
The child is about ready to hand his parents the report card, but he tries one more time to convince him he’s a good student. He tells his parents, “My teacher said yesterday that I am one of her best students.” The father laughs. He says that is hearsay and that he wants to talk to the teacher himself to get context for that statement and to see if it’s even true (801). The child protests and claims that the teacher is not available because she moved to Hawaii. The father is not swayed by this and tells his child, “even though she might be unavailable, her statement is not reliable enough for me to consider.” (804).
The parents have had enough and tell the child to hand his report card over. As he hands it to his mother, the child makes one last point. “How do you even know this report card is the real one, there are so many fakes out there nowadays.” The mother scoffs at this. She asks the child if this is the report card he received from school, if that is his name and address on it, and if that is his teacher’s signature on the bottom. He answers yes to all. The mother says that she feels comfortable that this report card is what it claims to be (901). The child remembering his father’s previous comments, quickly retorts, “Well isn’t the report card hearsay? Don’t we need the teacher here to confirm these grades?” The mother and father exchange side-eye glances, mumble something, and quickly move on without addressing the issue.
Seeing that he is about to lose the day, the child makes one last attempt to save his case. “Mother, that report card in your hand is clearly a copy of the original. I believe in fairness that you should look at the original and not the copy.” The mother, becoming more displeased, asks the child if this copy appears to be doctored or manipulated in anyway. The child says no. But the child says that in fairness, the parents should only look at the best evidence. The father picks up the report card, tells the child nice try, and opens it up. (1002).
There is no happy ending. There is no sad ending.
That is not how trials work.