In Court v. Science, Supremes Declare Selves Winners (Again)

06/26/2009 1:12 PM |

The Supreme Court doesn’t trust science anymore. Like, at all. Last week, the slimmest majority decided that criminal defendants did not have a constitutional right to access their cases’ DNA evidence. The court’s conservatives decided as such because they fear the innocence-and-guilt definitiveness that science provides (not that they wrote that outright in their decisions); for them, faith trumps reason. The justice system, after all, is about “reasonable doubt,” interpretation, and beliefs (based, ideally, on evidence). Judges decide what’s relevant. To an extent, DNA renders judges irrelevant, akin to how science kills god.

Yesterday, the Court struck another blow against science. In another 5-4 decision, it announced that crime lab reports can no longer be used as evidence unless the scientists behind them show up in court to testify-and be subject to cross-examination.

There’s a certain infeasibility to this: Justice Kennedy’s opinion noted that, in Cleveland for example, six drug analysts will now have to testify in over 100 trials each next year. The executive director of the National District Attorneys Association told the Times that the ruling will “require that criminalists in offices and labs that are already burdened and in states where budgets are already being cut back to travel to courtrooms and wait to say that cocaine is cocaine.”

But that’s neither really here nor there; pragmatism shouldn’t be the law’s main concern. What’s more troubling is the underlying concept; by reinterpreting the Sixth Amendment‘s right for a defendant “to be confronted with the witnesses against him,” the Court’s decision essentially transforms science into a “witness”. But that reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of science. And its objectivity. Witnesses interpret information subjectively; their testimony is rightly subject to challenges from a defense attorney, as well as a jury’s faith-part of the reason they are paraded into courtrooms is so a jury can assess their reliability on ineffable factors and not mere testimony.

But juries shouldn’t be assessing science’s reliability. Won’t a substance identified as cocaine will still be cocaine even if a defense attorney challenges the lab technician on the stand? Yes, science relies on a human element, and it’s possible for crime labs to be tainted, which is what brought this case to trial in the first place. Forensic scientists sometimes misbehave. But a few bad apples ought not delegitimize the concept of scientific authority, and I doubt that cross-examinations will “weed out…the fraudulent analyst,” as Scalia wrote. A better way might be…to use science? Or, at least, enforce a set of updated established regulations?

The most troubling aspect of this decision is that it was made, in large part, by the Court’s liberals; for once, the familiar ideological lines were blurred, the judges mixed and matched. Justice Breyer was the only liberal to stand up for science here, while the rest of the liberals got into bed with Justices Thomas and Scalia. What good can such an unholy alliance work?

Last week, we learned Roberts and Alito aren’t sure that DNA is, like, a real thing. This week, we find that the Ginsburg and Breyer think science should have to justify itself. So, apparently no one on the Court can be trusted to side with science. Fuck. If anyone wants to declare the earth is officially flat (Catholic Church?), now would be the time to sue.