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What science is admissible in court?

On June 28, the Supreme Court ruled on what types of scientific evidence are admissible in a court of law. The decision rejected the view of two lower courts that research data and interpretations must be peer reviewed and published before they can be used to help decide legal claims.

The ruling grows out of a lawsuit against Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., brought by two boys born with severe birth defects and their parents. The families had alleged that Bendectin, an antinausea drug taken by the boys' mothers during pregnancy, led to the children's congenital abnormalities. But the case was dismissed in 1989 by a judge who ruled that the expert testimony upon which the families' case was based was inadmissible. Because of the recent Supreme Court decision, the case can now go to trial again.

In the opinion he authored for the court, Justice Harry A. Blackmum noted that the scientific community had been following the case closely. Allowing courts to exclude what judges deem "invalid" evidence, he said, might "sanction a stifling and repressive scientific orthodoxy." Other parties that had submitted "friends of the court" briefs in the case argued that letting experts determine what constitutes admissible data might allow conjectures and poor science to be presented as widely accepted facts or interpretations.

The court agreed that publication of information and ideas in a peer-reviewed journal should be considered in assessing the validity of material offered to a court. But publication should not be the sole criterion of admissibility, according to the justices. Sometimes, the court said, "well-grounded but innovative theories will not have been published." Other times, propositions may be "too particular, too new, or of too limited interest to be published." In the end, the court expressed confidence that "the traditional and appropriate means of attacking shaky but admissible evidence" -- namely vigorous cross-examinations, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction to juries -- should ensure that justice will be served.

In a strongly worded, partial dissent, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice John Paul Stevens asserted that several passages in the just-issued opinion are confusing. Moreover, they predicted, "countless more questions will surely arise when hundreds of district judges try to apply [this opinion's] teaching to particular offers of expert testimony." In part, the two justices said, the decision's general observations "suffer from the flaw. . . [that] they tend to be not only general, but vague and abstract." For instance, they said, the ruling fails to resolve the difference between scientific and technical knowledge -- and whether the same rules of admissibility apply to each.
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Title Annotation:Supreme Court sets guidelines for determining admissibility of scientific evidence
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jul 24, 1993
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