NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Finding Scientific Truths In The Courtroom

August 23, 1999

Many judges will readily admit that they lack the skills necessary to closely analyze the bases of scientific expert testimony. In fact, one of the reasons many students chose to study the law is the desire to avoid math and science courses, observers report.

In an effort to help judges maneuver through the thickets of scientific evidence, the American Association for the Advancement of Science is launching its Court Appointed Scientific Experts Project. Its purpose is to recommend impartial scientists whom judges can call upon as experts for the court -- and even testify before juries in some cases.

  • A recent study found that more than 80 percent of civil cases involve at least one expert witness -- who, all too often, winds up as an advocate for one side or the other, rather than as an objective court resource.
  • Under the AAAS plan, experts will be appointed by the bench -- allowing them to act as impartial advocates for truth and fairness, rather than "hired guns" for one side or the other.
  • Those who support the appointment of court-appointed experts contend they could help juries and judges understand the issues more quickly -- leading to faster settlements and lower litigation costs.
  • Moreover, court-appointed experts could help keep the opposing sides more honest -- since they would be less likely to make spurious claims when an authority in their own field is sitting next to the judge.

Some legal observers urge caution, however. They argue that even if the expert does not testify, but merely consults with the judge, he would be communicating privately without the consent of the parties involved. That runs the risk of skewing the adversarial process.

Sources: David L. Faigman (University of California), "A Way to Sort Out Science from Spin," and William Schwarzer (U.S. District Judge), "Proceed With Care," both in the Washington Post, August 22, 1999.


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