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Vol. LXII, No. 14
July 9, 2010

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Science in the Court
NHGRI Scientists Present Genomic Advances to Visiting Judges

America’s state and federal courts experience constantly evolving developments in science and technology, resulting in a higher degree of case complexity, novel forms of evidence and entirely new areas of law. In June, 60 judges from across the country came to NIH to participate in a continuing education program about genomics, one area of science now affecting criminal and civil cases.

Titled “Genomics, Medicine and Discrimination,” the 4-day program was created by the National Human Genome Research Institute and the Advanced Science and Technology Adjudication Resource (ASTAR) Center, a judicial education entity affiliated with court systems, supported by the U.S. Department of Justice and headquartered in Washington, D.C.

The intensive lectures and tours at NIH spanned topics from genes and how they work to the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, which protects Americans against health insurance and employment discrimination based on their genetic information.

Intramural researchers and staff from NHGRI as well as the National Cancer Institute, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and National Institute of Mental Health shared the lectern with an array of legal and medical experts from around the country.

“The program provided an important forum for NIH scientists to convey basic genetic and genomic information to the judges and offer a perspective on how their research may impact the courts and society,” said program co-organizer Vence Bonham, chief of NHGRI’s Education and Community Involvement Branch. “We presented a range of information to enhance the judges’ confidence to properly interpret the terms of reference when genomics-related issues arise in court and expert witnesses testify.”

Alice Young (r), deputy director of the sequencing group at the NIH Intramural Sequencing Center, leads judges on a tour of the facility.
Sequencing group director Dr. Robert Blakesley shows judges the science.

Top: Alice Young (r), deputy director of the sequencing group at the NIH Intramural Sequencing Center, leads judges on a tour of the facility.

Above: Sequencing group director Dr. Robert Blakesley shows judges the science.

NIH is just one stop in a network of ASTAR programs for judges around the country that expose them to advances in science and technology, new terminology and the researchers themselves. ASTAR has collaborated previously with NIAAA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse and plans future collaborations with NICHD.

ASTAR offers the science and technology resource judge program to all U.S. jurisdictions. Since 2006, the center has held regional science and technology boot camps and has offered training to several hundred judges. In turn, the judges become a resource for their colleagues. A judge who earns 120 hours of ASTAR education can become an ASTAR fellow.

Court leaders attended from across the country— Hawaii on the west and Virginia in the east; Virgin Islands in the south and Minnesota in the north. Six chief justices of state supreme courts joined 20 associate justices and appellate court colleagues to learn about genomics. Additional participants included 30 ASTAR fellows, who are trial and appellate judges tapped for science and technology information leadership in their home court systems. While predominantly an offering for state courts, two federal court leaders and two District of Columbia judges also attended.

“Our mission is to develop portals between court systems and science centers so that judges can be properly prepared case managers at trial and on appeal,” said ASTAR director Dr. Franklin M. Zweig. “ASTAR attempts to narrow the gap between explosive scientific discovery with associated rapid technology commercialization and the judicial branch’s traditional, slower-moving, fair trial commitment to every citizen.”

Hon. Lawton R. Nuss, Supreme Court of Kansas, particularly valued the presentation by employment lawyer Douglas Mishkin, who spoke about applications of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, and by two fellow judges about admissibility of evidence and expert witness qualifications. “These are some principles we can take and apply in our field,” he said.

Hon. Laura Denvir Stith, Supreme Court of Missouri, remarked that by the end of training, she and her colleagues became much more comfortable with scientific concepts. “It was the most informative continuing learning education program I’ve been to since I became a judge,” she said.

“State and federal judges make decisions that apply science to the law that are important to all of us,” said NHGRI’s Bonham. “For them to learn more about science is valuable for courts across the country.” NIHRecord Icon

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