• June 26, 2009

Today the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision (but not the standard break-down between “conservatives” and “liberals”), held that the accused in criminal cases is entitled to confront witnesses under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution such that a certificate of state laboratory analysts as to drug weight or composition was not sufficient evidence on which to base a conviction — the defendant is entitled to cross-examine the person certifying (that is, the author of the certificate).

The ruling dove-tails with the recent controversy in Minnesota courts with regard to a different area of science and the criminal law: the rights of an accused to intoxilyzer source code.

This blog focuses on civil litigation, not criminal law but both cases highlight courts’ concerns that our judicial process risks being overshadowed if not overwhelmed by a widespread sense of “scientific truth” — something unquestionable, undebatable, beyond and superior to the truth as elicited from our judicial system. This tension plays out, of course, throughout civil litigation, as well as in the criminal law context.

(The U.S. Supreme Court decision, as the dissent pointed out, could put cities and states under great strain by increasing the costs of criminal prosecutions, and the decision might result in an increased demand for scientific/technical witnesses — witnesses with the background and expertise to give evidence as to chemical composition, accuracy of measuring devices, and so on.)

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