Jan. 25, 2002

Top judges court Lab for advice

Approximately 100 of the country’s highest ranking judges gathered at the Lab last week for extensive overviews on the science of bioterrorism.

The judges, from state supreme courts, state and federal courts of appeal, district and superior courts, spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday listening to presentations ranging from overviews on various pathogens, methods of biological agent detection and the effects of "agro-terrorism" on the nation’s farmlands, to how to prepare for and respond to an attack within their own courtrooms. The presentations came from scientific experts across the country as well as from within the Lab’s Biology and Biotechnology Research Program.

"This is an opportunity for us to get sound scientific information that we can use to make decisions in this new age of biological terror," said Annice Wagner, chief judge of the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. and the president of the Conference of Chief Justices.

The conference co-sponsored the gathering, along with the Laboratory and the Einstein Institute of Science, Health and the Courts. While the conference was the third meeting in a series convened since Sept. 11, the Laboratory has long served in an advisory capacity to various justices on a number of scientific issues, from DNA evidence to the genetics of behavior, and molecular biology to biotechnologies.

"We are fortunate a Lab like Livermore can provide this level of expertise to the judicial system," said Franklin Zweig, president of the Maryland-based Einstein Institute. EINSHAC, as it is commonly known, works with judges, courts and court-related personnel to "translate" science information that may be used in criminal and civil trials.
Wagner said the anthrax scare last fall in Washington has been something of a wake-up call for the courts. Her own courtroom was shut down after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and she offered that many of her employees have endured additional stress since anthrax was found in congressional offices, the post office and even the Supreme Court.

"You can’t imagine the fear in employees when even something like a pack of Sweet ‘N Low gets spilled on a counter," she said.

"We all wish we did not have to do this but I think that in today’s world we have to be smart and prepare for what we hope never comes," said Thomas Moyer, chief justice of the Ohio State Supreme Court.

"Judges need to understand the nature of scientific data in order to apply laws to it and rule on science-related issues that come up in the courts," added Ming Chin, a California Supreme Court Justice who attended the conference.

That point was driven home in presentations throughout the conference, from opening remarks by Director Bruce Tarter, in which he called for the development of a "biological literacy," as well as Saturday’s presentation by David B. Mallott, who spoke on the psychological effects of bioterrorism. Courtrooms must develop programs that will connect with people who have never gone beyond high school biology, said Mallott, a psychiatry professor and the associate dean for medical education at the University of Maryland.

Moyer said conferences such as that at Livermore go a long way toward solving some of the problems. "This presents information to help justices determine what is legitimate and what is not," he said. "The bottom line is that everyone will need to gain a firmer understanding of the science of bio-terrorism if they expect to conduct business in the courtrooms of the future."