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Science-savvy judges in short supply

As more sophisticated science creeps into the courtroom, judges are going back to school

By Seth Stern Special to the Christian Monitor / December 21, 2000

Like many judges, Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Zlaket jokes that he chose law to escape from science and math. But they're becoming harder to avoid.

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From DNA-based criminal appeals to patent disputes over computer software, science and technology are creeping into a growing number of court cases.

So on his summer vacation this year, Judge Zlaket went back to school at the University of Virginia (UVA) and learned the difference between a median and a mode. "It was a great experience," Zlaket says. "I realized how much I didn't know."

Judges throughout the country are seeking new ways to learn about scientific methods and are turning to objective scientists for help during trials. They admit high-quality justice requires more science-savvy judges.

"The courts work best when they are well informed," United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer told a Harvard University conference on DNA and the Criminal Justice System last month in Cambridge, Mass.

But the Supreme Court has only increased the scientific burden on judges over the past decade. A 1993 decision directed federal trial judges to determine whether evidence is sufficiently grounded in scientific principles to be introduced at trial. Many state courts have adopted similar standards.

New gate-keeping role

The new gate-keeping role requires judges to understand the underlying science at issue, says University of Utah law professor Susan Poulter. But many judges lack the skills needed to weed out the junk. "It's a lucky break when one of these cases that involves a heavy dose of scientific evidence ends up in front of a judge who can really understand it," says Prof. James Richardson, who directs the University of Nevada, Reno's (UNR) Judicial Studies Program.

A UNR survey of 400 state trial judges found that half believed their education left them unprepared to deal with scientific evidence. Many appellate judges say they're no better equipped.

"I'm scientifically illiterate," says Judge Pamela Ann Rymer of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. "I'm therefore typical of members of the judiciary of my age who were a product of a generalist liberal arts education and a generalist legal practice."

Except in specialized courts like bankruptcy, most judges are generalists, who jump from one legal issue to the next. Judges must also assume multiple roles in each case.

"Being a judge is a really demanding job," says University of North Carolina law professor John Conley. "You're supposed to be so many things: a well-educated lawyer, something of a psychiatrist, and, for short periods of time, you have to become knowledgeable on almost an infinite number of topics."

The learning curve only steepens when precedent-bound judges trained to find final answers confront science's more abstract and uncertain truths.

Judges with formal scientific training say their background helps bridge the gap between the two different disciplines.

"You feel more comfortable and confident in the decisionmaking process," says Judge Pauline Newman of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. She earned a PhD in chemistry before entering law school.

But no judge can keep up with all the new developments in law and science. To help them stay fresh, about half the states require judges to pursue continuing education.

Many state courts are hosting seminars run by the Einstein Institute for Science, Health and the Courts (EINSHAC). The nonprofit organization has educated 1,600 judges about genetics during the past five years, president Franklin Zweig says.

Other judges are visiting scientific facilities to get a hands-on education. Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson recently led the state's appellate judges on a field trip to the state police crime lab.

They watched technicians perform fingerprint matching, ballistic testing, and check alterations. "It gives you a sense, when you hear the evidence, of where it really came from and how was it done," Justice Abrahamson says.

Individual judges can also go back to campus. Both the University of Virginia and the University of Nevada at Reno offer master's degrees for judges. Each summer, 25 appellate judges move into UVA student dormitories to learn about everything from anthropology to the Russian legal system, says program director George Rutherglen. Participants earn a master's in the judicial process after 12 weeks of classroom work over two years.