WASHINGTON – Complex scientific issues continue to creep into the courtroom, driving Maryland judges to the classroom to help them understand the issues they must decide.
The Maryland Judiciary is holding a series of workshops designed to teach judges about molecular biology, genetics and neuro-imaging as part of the Advanced Science and Technology Adjudication Resource Center.
"Lawyers can baffle you with technology," Court of Appeals Judge Glenn Harrell Jr. said. "We want judges to be more comfortable."
"The best thing that could happen is that judges get sufficiently backgrounded in relevant science," said Franklin Zweig, president of ASTAR.
"Who's there but the judge to say, 'It seems to me there's a hole in the doughnut?'" Harrell said.
"When I was in college, science was the bane of my existence," Harrell, a leadership director of ASTAR, admitted. But by attending these workshops, Harrell can understand complex scientific testimony, and even help educate other judges.
The increased knowledge may mean Harrell is slated to try more science-based cases, assuming his docket is not already full. A case management system can note whether a judge has a certain area of expertise and will send certain cases a judge's way, he said.
ASTAR is an offshoot of a federally-supported program — the Einstein Institute for Science, Health and the Courts — designed to educate judges on the Human Genome Project, the effort to decode a human's DNA.
Participating judges will attend a series of workshops over the next year on topics including cancer triggers and genetic modification. The next three-day workshop will be held Jan. 19-21 at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. More than 20 Maryland judges will attend.
Judges will learn about gene manipulation and in vitro fertilization, tour laboratories and look at stem cell cultures.
Such complex issues have not hit many courtrooms yet, but Harrell thinks the time is coming.
"We see the rapid growth and the changes in direction. It doesn't take a fortuneteller to know what's coming," Harrell said.
"Things are more complicated now. When I was a boy there was chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. There was no such thing as Baskin-Robbins," said retired Judge John Fader II, who served on the Baltimore County Circuit Court for more than 20 years.
Educating judges can also be a business boon, according to Fader.
"It's good for business and it's good for Maryland," said Fader. By educating judges, he said, trials will run more efficiently, which could encourage businesses to come to Maryland.
Maryland government is courting the bioscience industry in other ways. The state has invested more than $450 million in bioscience infrastructure, and it's already home to more than 350 biotech companies, according to Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development.
The workshops will help prepare judges for any increase in technology cases in part by allowing them to talk with experts.
"We can ask the scientists . . . 'Where is this going to go?' You get a handle on the lay of the land," Harrell said.
"We're hopefully going to build a base of knowledge for them," said James Potter, a research associate at Johns Hopkins who will be participating in the workshop.
"Some of the things they see on 'CSI: Miami,' they'll understand," he said.
"My son is a lawyer, I'm going to run (my presentation) by him tonight, if he thinks it's OK, then I think I have the right target," Potter said of the unusual opportunity to teach to a room full of judges.
Zweig works to ensure information presented is accurate and unbiased, so judges don't receive a distorted view of the material.
"It is very balanced. No one there is grinding a particular ax," Harrell said.
A legal clinic where judges discuss hypothetical cases and their lessons is another important part of the program. Potter said clinicians and bioethicists will be present to help the judges evaluate the validity of the technology behind certain arguments.
The workshops are designed to help judges accurately evaluate evidence. Ruling on evidence is an important judicial role and one that can require substantial scientific background information.
"They need to know enough of the background to know if they're getting real, objective evidence or if it's junk," Zweig said.
Judges are often required to attend conferences and classes to stay up-to-date on important issues. Harrell said Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert Bell requires his judges to attend two days of classes per year.
The program has plans to expand nationally, after successful beginnings in Maryland and Ohio. Zweig is talking to judicial systems in North Carolina, New York and Virginia about hosting workshops. "We're essentially open for business of the expansion sort," he said.
Harrell is also looking forward to expanding ASTAR's reach. "We've got our eye on a larger goal," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.