Science Informs Law? (kudos to Judge Lederman)
Posted: 26 November 2008 11:14 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Yesterday in Miami Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman overruled the state’s law banning adoption by same-sex couples.  As I understand it, this ruling applies only to the particular case in question (two men and their foster sons), so its impact may be small.  Although I’m not familiar with specifics of the case or the ruling beyond what I’ve gleaned from some media reports, here’s what struck me: Much of the testimony and the ruling were based on findings in relevant social-science research about children reared by different types of parents.

In a 53-page ruling that reads at times like a social science paper, Lederman dissected 30 years worth of psychological and sociological research, concluding that studies overwhelmingly have shown that gay people can parent every bit as effectively as straight people and do no harm to their children.  (Boston Herald, 11/26)

What I find sadly amazing, if it’s true, is that this use of social-science evidence in such legal cases is quite rare, as I infer (perhaps wrongly) from this statement in the Catholic News Agency‘s 11/25 story: “The attorneys said the case was the first in the nation in which experts in child psychology, social work and other fields argued there is no scientific justification for a homosexual adoption ban.”  Perhaps they’re just saying it’s rare for experts from those particular fields to make those particular arguments; hard to tell from this excerpt.

At any rate, this led me to two thoughts, about which I’d appreciate any comments—especially from folks familiar with legal training—or pointers toward relevant discussions or other resources:

1. How much and what kind of training in science does the typical judge, attorney, or other legal professional typically have?  Is there anything in law school or pre-law curricula that addresses things like scientific methodology—especially in disciplines relevant to legal practice (which I suppose could vary widely)—or basic statistical issues?

2. Is it feasible to require or at least strongly encourage legal professionals—especially judges—to demonstrate some minimally acceptable level of science literacy?  No doubt they have enough to learn without being burdened by more information and requirements, but it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to expect judges to have a solid grasp on some scientific principles that would help them evaluate empirical research evidence when confront with it.  I suspect this would ultimately benefit freethinking, secular, and similar causes more than religious ones.

One initiative that seems aimed at increasing the role of science in law is the Center for Empirical Research in the Law at Washington University in St. Louis.  Is it working?  Do other efforts like this exist?

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Adam

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Posted: 27 November 2008 01:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The only requirements for getting into law school are a bachelors, a good GPA, and high LSAT scores. You have to have B.S. to be patent lawyer otherwise no science requirement as far as i know. In certain fields of law it is desirable for the lawyer to have scientific knowledge may get you in the door at law firms.

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Dan

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Posted: 27 November 2008 07:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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In a tangential response to this sort of issue (science and the law) I will only point out that the new CEO of CFI, Ron Lindsay, is himself a lawyer, and Derek Araujo head of the NY center has a law degree from Harvard. They and others at CFI have been involved in several recent examples of legal and political advocacy.

For more on some recent efforts see HERE.

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Doug

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Posted: 27 November 2008 10:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Scientific and technological expertise are often essential to litigation, but judges and attorneys, and juries, benefit from this expertise through the testimony of experts in the relevant field.  Lawyers cannot testify, except in limited circumstances, and judges do not.  Scientific background may help a lawyer or judge to understand the issues and present a case, but decisions are (ideally supposed to be) rendered based on the record presented to the fact-finder (judge or jury).  A judge may rely on his/her own experience in making a decision, but is discouraged from relying solely on personal experience in doing so (the idea being it is generally undesirable for a judge to make decisions based solely on his/her own opinions, but instead on the evidence presented).

Good litigators and judges will generally take the time to educate themselves as best they can on technical and scientific issues relevant to a case, but ultimately must rely on experts.  In cases where scientific expertise is required for an opinion to be expressed to a judge or jury, the litigant having the burden of proof will not succeed if unable to present expert testimony.

As has been pointed out, some scientific background would be desirable in a lawyer practicing in the of patents and intellectual propety, or, say, in one who engages exclusively or primary in an area like medical malpractice where that background would be useful in analyzing cases.  I don’t see scientific studies being introduced in law schools as regular courses of study except perhaps as advanced courses for those seeking to specialize in an area of practice where that knowledge would benefit a career.

Even where expert testimony is required, the issue will ultimately be governed by the application of legal principles established by statute or over the years in case law to the facts presented.  In this case, presumably, the court assessed the situation based on a determination of “the best interests of the child” which is the usual standard to be applied where children are involved.  The scientific evidence presented would be relevant to determining the question whether the interests of the child would be impacted, and, if so, how they would be impacted.

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Posted: 28 November 2008 09:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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The classic example here is Roe v Wade, for which the lead justice on the case spent months researching the medical issues. That was one of the important factors in getting the other justices to sign up.

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