Citizen’s Guide to Using Expert Witness Testimony

Delegates weigh information during a budget presentation

EBY TAYLOR BENNETT, POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB

With hundreds of bills introduced during West Virginia’s annual 60-day legislative session, there isn’t enough time for legislators to thoroughly review each policy. And yet, they are tasked with making incredibly important decisions – to pass bills or not – that could have long-lasting effects on all of us.

So, how do they know what to do?

We’ve talked before about the pivotal role that citizen lobbyists can play in bringing legislators up to speed on issues they care about. Often, this is done by meeting with legislators and talking them through the finer points of the issue you care about, one-on-one.

In addition to personal meetings, there is another moment in the legislative process that’s built in to give legislators the opportunity to better understand what are often complicated issues.

Time for Citizens to Engage

During the process of committee review, legislators will often request to hear from subject matter experts, known as expert witnesses, on the topic that’s covered by a bill. If you know that your bill is on the agenda in a committee, and you have an expert witness who can speak to why the bill ought to be passed, here’s what to do:

  • First, prepare your expert. Whether the expert is you or someone else, make sure that you review the information you need them to cover before it’s time.
  • Next, talk with a supporting legislator who is a member of that committee. Introduce them to your expert and ask them if they’d be interested in calling for this person to provide testimony to the committee.
  • Attend the committee meeting. Be sure to pay close attention to announcements at the end of floor session just in case there are changes to committee agendas or follow the West Virginia Legislature on Twitter (@WVHouse and @WVSenate) and Facebook – two web-based platforms where they make these types of announcements.

 

If you’re working with a witness who doesn’t often take part in the legislative process, make sure to remind them that, just like in court, when asked to provide testimony to a committee of the legislature, witnesses are asked to swear that they will tell the truth and sign a statement saying that they have provided information to the best of their ability. Witnesses should state facts and observations and steer clear of opinions.

Who Can Be an Expert Witness?

Expert witnesses are subject-matter experts in the topic area that the policy covers. People who have done academic research on a related topic, hold a profession in a related field, or represent an interest group that is impacted by an issue are all frequently called upon to give expert testimony.

I think about it this way: Experts are people who hold a specific role that gives them access to information that others don’t have.

Local elected officials who are working on addressing an issue in their community: experts. Nonprofit leaders who represent the interests of people who participate in their programs: experts. Small Business Owners offering a service discussed by a bill: experts.

Expert witnesses may not directly influence the opinion of legislators, but their words often factor heavily into their decision-making process.

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