Black Robes, White Coats: The Puzzle of Judicial Policymaking and Scientific Evidence

Black Robes, White Coats: The Puzzle of Judicial Policymaking and Scientific Evidence

Black Robes, White Coats: The Puzzle of Judicial Policymaking and Scientific Evidence

Black Robes, White Coats: The Puzzle of Judicial Policymaking and Scientific Evidence

Synopsis

Scientific evidence is commonplace in today's criminal trials. From hair and handwriting analysis to ink and DNA fingerprints, scientists have brought their world to bear on the justice system.

Combining political analysis, scientific reasoning, and an in-depth study of specific state supreme court cases, Black Robes, White Coats is an interdisciplinary examination of the tradition of "gatekeeping," the practice of deciding the admissibility of novel scientific evidence. Rebecca Harris systematically examines judicial policymaking in three areas forensic DNA, polygraphs, and psychological syndrome evidence to answer the question: Why is scientific evidence treated differently among various jurisdictions? These decisions have important implications for evaluating our judicial system and its ability to accurately develop scientific policy.

While the interaction of these professions occurs because the white coats often develop and ascertain knowledge deemed very useful to the black robes, Harris concludes that the black robes are well positioned to render appropriate rulings and determine the acceptability of harnessing a particular science for legal purposes.

First book to systematically gather and analyze judicial decisions on scientific admissibility

Analyzes several key cases including Arizona v. Bible and Kansas v. Marks

Includes examples of evidence in three appendices: forensic DNA, polygraph evidence, and syndrome evidence

Presents an original model of the gatekeeping process

Excerpt

This book is about a particular interaction between two very different creatures: judges and scientists. These professions outfit themselves in special attire symbolizing the nature of their work. Judges are in the business of processing defendants, using wisdom and legal expertise. The black robe of the judge represents the neutrality and authority requisite for this particular public service. By contrast, scientists are in the business of developing and harnessing the knowledge of how the world works. The white coat of the scientist symbolizes precision and clinical sterility. The precision and clinical sterility of the scientific reputation provides legitimacy to the kind of knowledge arising from a scientific understanding of natural and social phenomena. The interaction of these professions occurs because the white coats often develop and harness knowledge that is very useful to the black robes. The black robes, however, are constrained by political wisdom and legal expectations when they are introduced to a new product from the white coats. They cannot accept every novel scientific advancement as legally permissible in a court of law. Rather, they are required to determine the prudence and acceptability of harnessing a particular science for legal purposes.

The judicial decision to admit or deny a particular science to be included in a legal proceeding is commonly referred to as a gatekeeping decision. Gatekeeping decisions about scientific knowledge abound in everyday judicial process, and the most important gatekeeping decisions are statewide policy decisions by state supreme courts. State supreme courts must decide if novel scientific evidence meets the jurisdictional standard for admissibility in order to certify it for inclusion in a judicial proceeding. Forensic DNA and rape trauma syndrome are examples of scientific knowledge that may arise in judicial proceedings. Two examples of real-world cases from the Supreme Court of Arizona and the Supreme Court of Kansas provide a picture of the way these scientific policy questions are embedded in criminal proceedings. In these two cases, the legal standard for admissibility requires that the science be “found to be generally accepted as reliable in the relevant scientific community” (U.S. v. Frye [1923]).

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