RENCI Provides Insight on Data Science in Courtrooms

Stan Ahalt, Director, and Sarah Davis, Research Project Manager, attended the Science in the Courtroom Seminar for Resource Judges, held August 29-31, 2018, at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, DC. The seminar – organized by Franklin Zweig, Esq., of the National Courts and Sciences Institute and Dr. James Evans of the UNC Department of Genetics and Bryson Center for Judicial Science Education – is part of an ongoing science training program for state and federal judges from around the country, educating the judges to become resources on scientific issues for judges in their jurisdictions.

As The Honorable Pauline Newman, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, noted, in the past judges had a passive role regarding science in the courtroom, allowing any expert to testify about whatever might be relevant to the trial. Increasingly, however, judges are being asked to rule on the qualifications of scientists to testify as well as the relevance and reliability of the testimony they intend to offer. This gatekeeping function is especially difficult when the judges do not have expertise in, or even a basic understanding of, complex scientific issues. Accordingly, judges at the seminar heard presentations on DNA and frontiers of genetic engineering, health care outcome research, and the neurobiology of violence and addiction. The judges also participated in mock hearings to put that knowledge to use. In one such hearing, a mock lawyer questioned two scientific experts in CRISPR genetic modification technology to determine whether a hospital could stop a couple’s medical team from using CRISPR to attempt to remove genes associated with Huntington’s Disease from a viable IVF embryo. The mock judge ruled that the hospital could not stop the procedure, a ruling with which most of the judges in the room seemed to agree.

Dr. Ahalt gave the final presentation of the seminar on Big Data: Promise and Peril for Courts (and Society). The presentation had two purposes: to introduce the judges to basic concepts in data science and to highlight some areas where data science issues might arise in the courtroom. For example, Dr. Ahalt proposed the following scenario: he is plaintiff’s expert witness in a case where the plaintiff sues both his doctor and the company that created the medical AI platform (like Watson Health) on which the doctor relied in his diagnosis. Dr. Ahalt plans to testify regarding the inadequacy of the platform’s queries. What questions might the judges ask to determine whether he is qualified to testify and whether his testimony is reliable. One judge asked, “Inadequate compared to what?” That is, what was the platform being compared to? Another AI platform? The doctor?

RENCI plans to continue this important discussion regarding data science in the courtroom and in the legal field. We hope to develop a seminar, similar to the program held in Washington DC, that will train judges to be knowledgeable about – and skeptical of – the data science, algorithms, and analytics that they will increasing encounter in their courtroom.

By Sarah Davis, Research Project Manager