Feb. 20, 2001 San Francisco, CA —- 16 February 2001 -—Judges who would like to understand the scientific concepts in a complicated case now will have a place to turn to for expertise.
Starting this month, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is offering to help federal judges find well-respected, impartial scientists and engineers to serve as expert witnesses, a step that could help the judiciary understand increasingly complex issues without having to depend on experts whose fees are being paid by the parties in a trial.
The new project, which will be implemented over the next several years, is called Court Appointed Scientific Experts (CASE), and it was developed under the aegis of the National Conference of Lawyers and Scientists (NCLS), a joint standing committee of AAAS and the American Bar Association’s Science and Technology Law Section.
“The real issue is the new technology,” said U.S. District Judge Martin L.C. Feldman of New Orleans, who participated in the design of the CASE project. “The law is evolutionary, and it takes a long time for the law to catch up with new developments in technology...The question is, how can federal judges deal with all these issues that now are arising in federal trials.”
Federal judges have had the right to appoint experts to advise both judge and jury since 1975, according to Deborah Runkle, project manager for CASE, which falls under the purview of the AAAS Directorate of Science and Policy Programs. Runkle notes that the authority is rarely used, although she cites a 1993 survey that found that almost 90 percent of the judges questioned would consider appointing an expert to help them comprehend complex technical issues.
“The judges don’t use this authority to appoint experts, and one reason they don’t is that they don’t know where to go for the expertise,” Runkle says. “We think they will feel comfortable coming to us because they can say they are going to an organization with tremendous prestige and no vested interest in the outcome of a given case.”
The CASE project could be particularly helpful to judges who are anxious to comply with a 1993 Supreme Court ruling that federal judges must take steps to exclude unreliable testimony from the courtroom. The need for experts is also great in light of the increasing number of complex scientific issues that are appearing in the nation’s courtrooms. Feldman and Runkle point to questions about the safety of medical devices and pesticides, as well as about electrical engineering at a nuclear power site as examples of the sorts of issues that would lend themselves to expert testimony from a court-appointed scientist or engineer.
The experts, who are paid by the courts, are located in various ways, Runkle said. A number of AAAS’s affiliated organizations are assisting with the project, so, for example, the program might ask the American Statistical Association or the Society of Toxicology to suggest an expert in a particular field. CASE works also with a “blue-ribbon” group of advisors, who will make discreet inquiries about an expert’s scientific credentials as well as his or her ability to communicate to a lay audience. The project also has access to a number of databases that can serve to develop an initial list of possible experts.
Asked if judges have begun calling her for help, Runkle said there have been calls, but an expert’s name will be revealed only when his or her appointment has become part of the public record. “In the interest of confidentiality, we will not discuss cases before the experts have been appointed by the court,” Runkle said.
The CASE project operates with funding from the Leland Fikes Foundation and the Program on Law and Society of the Open Society Institute.
Founded in 1848, AAAS is the world’s largest federation of scientists with more than 138,000 individual members and 273 affiliated societies. The Association publishes the weekly, peer-reviewed journal Science and administers EurekAlert! (http://www.eurekalert.org) the online news service featuring the latest discoveries in science and technology and other Internet features.
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