The Discussion about Standards, Certification, Maturity, etc.: Useful or Divisive? Elitist Envy or Intellectual Inevitability?

Part I of Several Parts

When  I say in in my profile on this page, that I “literally have a checkered past,”  that refers to both my ancestral background (as it would to most people) and to the fact that for complicated reasons, I have been in several different professions in my working lifetime.  I have been, among other things, a military officer, a college professor (undergrad and grad), a lawyer, and a law professor.  These professions and their organizations have in common a need for self-examination which to an outsider (or even some insiders) sometimes seems obsessively paranoiac.

Law faculties and the profession of law teaching are good examples.  On a broad basis, they worry constantly about whether they are producing intelligent scholarship or merely showing their students  “a craft,” like plumbing or carpentry (and in many law faculties those honorable crafts are regarded with derision).  They worry about “credentials”: their own and those of their students.  And lately they’ve been forced (they say) by outside forces to  worry about where they “rank” among their peers.  Based on somebody’s perception of these issues, law schools have come to categorize themselves by “tiers”; i.e., the University of Texas School of Law in Austin is a “first tier” law school; the University of New Mexico School of Law is not.

Are these discussions worthwhile?

I ponder this because similar discussions take place in genealogical circles.

Recently, two writers whose work I admire, the Ancestry Insider, he of his anonymously eponymous blog, and James Tanner of Genealogy’s Star, have published provocative pieces that have drawn reaction from many more folks I admire and respect.  And, no surprise, the objects of my admiration and respect have diverse views on the issues.

James Tanner, a lawyer, asked the question “Is certification of genealogists necessary?” A very good question, indeed. Why would certification of genealogists be necessary: to give some people some additional letters to go in behind their names, or to give a competitive advantage to others, or to provide a consumer protection?

Over the next several posts, we’ll discuss those issues.  But first let’s start with a legal scenario to stoke the fire a bit.  Suppose a party is in court to demand what he believes to be a share of his rightful inheritance. This party’s case relies on proof of his relationship to the deceased.  The relationship is not obvious in any way. So the party, let’s call him Mr. Cousins, hires a genealogist to trace the family relationships.  Let’s go to the courtroom now where Mr. Cousins’ attorneys from the firm of Gried Avarice Mammon & Lust are about to present their case.

Patricia Lust (attorney for plaintiff Cousins): Your Honor, plaintiff calls Jeanne Runner.

Noe Udont (attorney for defendant  Executor):  Your Honor, we object to the testimony of this witness.  We believe that she is going to present so-called genealogical evidence.

Judge: And your problem with that is…?  You know the rules of evidence in this state say that relevant evidence is any evidence having any tendency to make more or less probable the existence of any fact it at issue in the case, and that relevant evidence is admissible,  correct, Ms. Udont?

Udont: Yes, I know that, Judge.  Those are Evidence Rules 401 and 402  But I think they’re trying to use this witness to to give testimony based on her opinion. She has no personal knowledge of plaintiff’s family history.  She wasn’t there when he was born.  She wasn’t there when his grandfather was born.  Or any of the other relatives for that matter.  And our state’s evidence rule 603 does not allow a witness to testify as to matters of which she has no personal knowledge.

Lust: Ah, but the rules of evidence in this state do allow  an expert witness to testify as to her opinion if her scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the court to  determine a fact in issue.

Udont: Well, she’s right about that.   State evidence rule 702, however, says that the witness must be “qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education.”  I doubt that a genealogist could be so qualified.

Judge: And the rule also says that a so-called “expert”  may give opinion testimony only if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.

Lust: Well, Your Honor, let me bring my witness in and we’ll see.

Judge: Okay.

(Witness is brought in and takes the stand, and is sworn)

Lust: For the record, what is your name please?

Witness: My name is Jeanne Runner.

Lust:  Are you employed, Ms. Runner?

Runner: Uh, not in the usual sense.  Mainly I stay home with my two young children.

Lust: How do you occupy your time other than spending it with your young children?

Runner: I’m a genealogist.

Udont: Objection, Your Honor.  The answer is conclusory and presupposes–

Judge: Overruled.  You may continue, Ms. Lust.

Lust: Ms. Runner, what degrees or formal education do you have in the field of genealogy?

Runner: Well, I don’t have any degree in genealogy.  I have I have a bachelors of science degree in electrical engineering.  And I’m not sure I know what you mean by “formal education in genealogy.”

Lust: How did you come by your knowledge of genealogy?

Runner: Well, about 10 years ago, I became interested in  family history.  I read a book by a woman named Elizabeth Shown Mills.  Since then I’ve read just about everything she’s ever written.  I started going to genealogical conferences, and I began tracing my own family history using census records, military records, land records, old newspaper articles, photographs, things like that, you know.

Lust: Do you belong to any genealogical societies or organizations?

Runner: Yes, I belong to the National Genealogical Society, the Association of Professional Genealogists, three different state genealogical societies, the Guild of One Name Studies, and my state’s historical society.

Lust: In the past five years, what conferences have you attended with respect to genealogy?

Runner: I’ve been to the National Genealogical Society conference, the Southern California Genealogical Society Jamboree, the annual meetings of the three state genealogical societies I belong to, and the conference of the State historical society to which I belong.

Lust: Have you published in the field of genealogy?

Runner: Yes.  I published an article in one of the state genealogical society journals about how I found my great great grandfather, who had a very common name, by using tax and land records, and old arrest records.  I also have a blog on which I publish regularly tips and hints for others who are interested in genealogy; and I have a web site where I have recorded all of my family history including sources.

Lust: Ms. Runner, have you won any awards for your work in genealogy?

Runner: Why, yes.  The article that I mention that I published in a state genealogical society journal was voted best article of the year by the members of the of the society.

Lust: What other activities you engage in regarding genealogy?

Runner: Well, I teach beginning genealogy at our local community college.  I’m a presenter every year at our local genealogical society’s  education day. And I edited the biography of the founder of our town. Oh, and I forgot to mention earlier that I am member of the Daughters of Nordic Ancestors in America an d I chair their family history education committee.

Lust: Your Honor, at this time, I would tender Ms. Runner as an expert in genealogy qualified by her training, experience, knowledge and education, to present an opinion regarding Mr. Cousins’  family history..

Udont: Before you rule on that, Your Honor, may I examine the witness?

Judge: Yes, of course.

Udont: Ms. Runner, you mentioned that you were a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists.  Would you consider yourself a professional genealogist?

Runner: You know, I’m afraid I really don’t know what is meant by the term “professional genealogist.”

Udont: Ms. Runner, is genealogy an art or science?

: Well, there are aspects of both art and science in the practice of genealogy.  It’s a field of knowledge, hence the suffix “-ology.”

: So you want the court to conclude that anyone who dabbles in a “something-ology” is an expert “something-ologist,” just because they say they are?

Lust: Objection, Your Honor, argumentative.

Judge: Sustained.  Watch yourself, Ms. Udont.

Udont: Sorry.  Ms. Runner, are you certified by the Board for Certification of Genealogists?

Runner: No.

Udont: Are you accredited by the international commission for accreditation of professional genealogists?

Runner: No.

Udont: Have you received certification or accreditation from any other genealogical organization in the United States?

Runner: To my knowledge, there are no other certification or accreditation bodies other than the two that  you’ve already mentioned.

: How many times have you testified in court as an expert witness in genealogy?

Runner: Never.

Udont: Thank you, Ms. Runner.  I have no further questions.  Your Honor, I’ll enter my objection to her testifying as an expert.

How should the judge decide?    Keep in mind these rules:

1.  Generally, a witness cannot testify to a matter of opinion, unless the witness is an expert witness.
2.  An expert witness is one who is qualified by reason of “knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education.”


7 Responses to “The Discussion about Standards, Certification, Maturity, etc.: Useful or Divisive? Elitist Envy or Intellectual Inevitability?”

  • […] Noe Udont, has objected to allowing Runner to testify as an expert in genealogy.  See this link to read the testimony leading up to this point.  The judge is about to hear argument and then […]

  • Concerning the professionalization/certification of genealogists, a similar discussion is happening in the life/executive coaching sector.

    But it seems pretty obvious to me: If I want to make a paid profession out of either field (coaching or genealogy), it supports my efforts and my marketability to be formally trained and certified. Especially as the field gets more and more saturated as people hang their shingle, those with formal education and certification will rise above those who do not.

    I will also feel more confident in my capabilities if I’ve had formal training.

    Where’s the controversy?

    — Jillaine

  • Randy Seaver says:

    This issue was discussed several months ago on the public APG mailing list before it went private… the indication then was that some states were requiring licensing or certification for expert witnesses about genealogy.

    There is a way around this, of course – and that is to call county clerks or other repository keepers to testify about speicifc records.

    You know, this might make for an interesting drama for genealogy societies to present at programs or conferences. Think about it! How could a society do that? With your permission, I would guess, even though it would not be “published” as such.

  • George Geder says:

    Hi Craig,


    Ms. Noe Udont will have a lot of ‘professional’ genealogists running for the hills or chasing after certification – for certification’s sake.

    Never mind you’ve been doing something for 99 years – and doing it well.
    Are you certified?

    I think the judge should allow Runner’s testimony up to the point where it fails to be ‘expert’ or credible.

    We all know that you can be certified or accredited. It doesn’t necessarily make you any good or credible. I digress.

    “An expert witness is one who is qualified by reason of “knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education.” That states 5 ways to be considered an expert witness.

    This promises to be a fascinating series!

    “Guided by the Ancestors”

  • James Tanner says:

    Really entertaining and to the point. However, in Arizona an expert witness can qualify through experience alone. So her lack of credentials would go to the weight of her testimony, not to its admissibility. I recently cross examined a witness who had three “letter” designations after his name. I was unfamiliar with all of the designations and on cross examination I asked him for his “credentials.” This was a probate hearing so we hadn’t done any prior discovery. It turned out that the letters were meaningless and not degrees but merely his way of saying that he had experience. The Judge still allowed the testimony but decided against the side presenting the “expert.” (By the way the witness had no real knowledge to back up his opinions).

    It would be interesting to follow through and see what “evidence” this witness is going to produce. However, I believe you raise a question as to whether or not the additional certifications would make any difference in this case or any other. Merely because a potential witness (or journal article writer) has some letters after their name does not make their testimony (or genealogical conclusions) any more or less accurate.

    I hope you continue this series, it will prove to be very interesting.

  • Lee says:

    Call me confused – if the witness presents her findings through solid physical evidence, what difference does her being an expert make? It ceases to be an opinion when the evidence itself supports it. If there is no trail of evidence to support the connection, and it truly is just her opinion (expert or not), I wouldn’t accept it into my tree and wouldn’t expect a court to accept it either. And of course, this is just my opinion and I’m no expert at anything. LOL…

  • Apple says:

    This is a tough topic and one that I’ve avoided commenting on previously.

    Based on the definition of an expert witness I’d accept Ms. Runner as an expert based on knowledge, skill and experience. Hopefully she’ll have documents and sources to back up her testimony.

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