If there is no binding precedent on point, where does the Supreme Court of North Carolina look for guidance?  Which are more persuasive:  federal court opinions or North Carolina Court of Appeals opinions?  Does the answer to that question change when the issue is one of appellate procedure, such as the standard of review?

The Supreme Court grappled with these issues in State v. Corbett, filed last week.  Although the majority and dissenting opinions disagreed on several important points, one particularly interesting divergence was the source of persuasive authority.

In Corbett, the defendants were charged with second-degree murder but argued that the killing was done in self-defense.  Shortly after the victim’s death, his two children were separately interviewed by several individuals including a social worker, a child advocate, a forensic interviewer, and a pediatrician.  By the time of the criminal trial, the children were living in Ireland and unable to testify.  Thus, the question was raised:  could the children’s interview statements be admitted under Rule 803(4)’s exception for hearsay statements made for the purpose of medical diagnosis or treatment?  Although the defendants believed that the children’s statements would support the self-defense argument, the trial court ruled that the children’s statements were inadmissible hearsay and refused to admit them into evidence.

On appeal, one of the first questions facing the Supreme Court was the standard of review to apply to the trial court’s decision.  The majority held that the standard of review is de novo.  Although that standard could be inferred from some prior Supreme Court precedents, the majority instead relied on a Court of Appeals case that had addressed the precise issue.  In explaining its rationale, the majority stated that “although decisions of the Court of Appeals are not binding on this Court, the fact that the Court of Appeals has interpreted our precedents as making clear that the admissibility of hearsay under Rule 803(4) is reviewed de novo further confirms that there exists settled precedent in the State of North Carolina, notwithstanding decisions of the federal courts which may have arrived at different conclusions.”

Thus, relying on a Court of Appeals decision, the majority stated the rule:  “A trial court’s determination that an out-of-court statement is inadmissible under Rule 803(4) is reviewed de novo.”  Applying that de novo review, the majority conducted an extensive analysis of the children’s statements and concluded that they should have been admitted under the hearsay exception.

The dissent, on the other hand, stated that because the Supreme Court’s case law on the standard of review was “nonexistent,” the Court should “look to the federal rules for guidance.”  North Carolina Rule 803(4) is similar to Federal Rule of Evidence 803(4), and federal courts typically review hearsay determinations for abuse of discretion.  According to the dissent, de novo review of these types of decisions “does away with the fundamental safeguards that are available to all litigants when the primary decisional responsibility of the trial court is respected and maintained.”

Under the deferential, abuse-of-discretion standard of review, the dissenting justices would have ruled that the trial court “made appropriate findings of fact and weighed factors” in analyzing the children’s statements and “reasonably concluded that the statements were not made for the purpose of medical diagnosis or treatment.”

Which approach do you think got it right?  When the Supreme Court is deciding an issue, such as the standard of review, should it look to the Court of Appeals for guidance?  Or should it look to federal appellate courts?  What about courts of last resort in other states?  Or maybe some combination thereof?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

–Kip Nelson