Judges Get Crash Course in Sciences

The Associated Press
Saturday, May 5, 2007; 7:56 AM

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- As advanced science plays a larger role in courtrooms across the country, judges who earned degrees in English or the humanities face the daunting task of making informed decisions about some very technical disputes. That's why judges from across the Southeast gathered Friday for a crash course with medical and genetics experts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

About 60 judges are attending the conference, which is exploring emerging and often contested areas of science.

Unlike other judicial seminars, this three-day intensive training session _ dubbed The Southeast Regional Science and Technology Boot Camp _ aims to prepare judges for some of the most politically charged issues of the day: gene therapy, genetic discrimination, genetically modified foods, human cloning and stem cell research.

"We aren't here to weigh in on one side or another of these controversies," Dr. James Evans, a professor of genetics and medicine at UNC's School of Medicine, told The Associated Press. "But these are really the kinds of things that judges will face in the courtroom as contentious issues percolate into the courts."

And as science becomes a focal point in the courtroom, the English majors and humanities scholars that sit on local, state and federal courts could hear cases involving questions at the forefront of scientific debate.

Judges increasingly play the role of a courtroom gatekeeper, determining which expert witnesses are qualified to testify and explaining to juries which bits of forensic evidence have more value.

Jose Rodriguez, a veteran circuit court judge in Orlando, Fla., said Friday he is in the middle of a manslaughter case in which he's trying to determine the scientific reliability of key pieces of evidence.

"The case is a battle of experts," Rodriguez said, during a break in the conference. "The strength of this conference is what, no doubt, will give me the opportunity to make the right decision."

At a time when judges face a growing log of science-based cases, leaders on the bench should have the opportunity to expand their knowledge, said Rodriguez, who majored in communications as an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida.

"It is our call to resolve disputes in every arena, so the greater our ability to understand different disciplines the better it makes us," he said.

Allen Couch, Jr., a county judge from Hernando, Miss., said some attorneys likely take advantage of the courtroom by pushing complex issues past judges who don't fully grasp the science.

"By coming to this (conference), we get an understanding _ a working knowledge _ so we may be able to understand the issues ourselves and not have to rely on others," said Couch, a former felony prosecutor who studied English at the University of Mississippi before going to law school.

The UNC Chapel Hill conference is focusing on emerging sciences, taking a different approach than other conferences for judges that focused on past issues, such as the 2006 Judges' Medical School that explored the biology of cancer related litigation.

The North Carolina conference, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, also looks ahead to medical disputes _ such as stem cell research _ that are expected to be fought over soon in the courtroom.

George Annas, a bioethics and legal expert who was not involved in the conference, praised judges for seeking out a deeper knowledge of the issues. He said unbiased education can help separate the fact from the hype.

"Good law begins with good facts," said Annas, chair of the department of law, bioethics and human rights at Boston University. "It's critical that judges get the science right."

© 2007 The Associated Press