Posner v. Scalia Round XIX: You Sir, Are No Scientist

October 30th, 2013

In a routine 1983 suit, which Judge Posner dramatically labels “the ubiquitous federal constitutional tort statute,” I detect a whiff of snark at Justice Scalia. Really, he’s mad at everyone for messing up science. First, he directs his ire at the magistrate judge, the district court judge, the plaintiff, and the defendant, for failing to challenge a statement not supported by the record:

What is troubling about the case is not its disposition but  that both the district judge, and the magistrate judge whose  recommendation  to  grant  summary  judgment  the  district  judge accepted, believed that Jackson “can present evidence  permitting a reasonable inference” that he had experienced a  serious medical condition as a consequence of the interrup‐ tion of his medication. This is mistaken, and (not surprising‐ ly) has no support in the record. But it is not only repeated in  the plaintiff’s brief in this court, as one would expect; it is  largely ignored by the defendants.

Then Posner opens up, and goes meta at all lawyers for not knowing science and technology.

This lapse is worth noting because it is indicative of  a  widespread,  and  increasingly  troublesome,  discomfort  among lawyers and judges confronted by a scientific or oth‐ er technological issue. “As a general matter, lawyers and sci‐ ence don’t mix.” Peter Lee, “Patent Law and the Two Cul‐ tures,” 120 Yale L.J. 2, 4 (2010);

And what’s the first case he cites in the string? Nino!

see also Association for Molecu‐lar Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2107, 2120 (2013) (Scalia, J.,  concurring in part  and  concurring in the  judgment) (“I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its  opinion except Part I–A and some portions of the rest of the  opinion going into fine details  of molecular biology. I  am  unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even  my own belief”);

But is this an attack? Or perhaps a subtle praise of Scalia for acknowledging the limits of his own decision? I’m not sure which way it cuts. As I commented at the time:

point is that he lacks the knowledge or data to restate it in a judicial opinion. Chris Green praises Scalia for exhibiting “intellectual humility.” I agree with Chris, and appreciate the fact that he acknowledged that he, as a judge, lacks the ability to fully judicialize (yes I made up that word) this science.

But as I read the rest of Posner’s opinion, he seems to say that Judges *should* learn about science and technology. Ignorance is not an excuse.

The discomfort of the legal profession, including the ju‐ diciary, with science and technology is not a new phenome‐ non.  Innumerable  are  the  lawyers  who  explain  that  they  picked law over a technical field because they have a “math  block”—“law students as a group, seem peculiarly averse to  math and science.” David L. Faigman, et al., Modern Scientific  Evidence:  Standards,  Statistics,  and Research Methods  v (2008  student ed.). But it’s increasingly concerning, because of the  extraordinary rate of  scientific  and other technological  ad‐ vances that figure increasingly in litigation.

In fact, during Round XV, Posner took special exception to the Myriad Opinion. Posner was not impressed by Scalia’s opinion in Myriad, where he chose not to join the portion of the opinion that explores genetics.

 One might expect a judge to be willing to make the rather modest investment in time and intellectual effort required to puzzle out the majority’s description. Yet some commentators, rather than criticizing Scalia for being unwilling to do so, have commended him for candor in acknowledging his scientific ignorance.
But if Justice Scalia was unwilling to make the necessary effort to understand the discussion of genetics in the majority opinion, how was he able to understand the discussion of genetics in the lower-court opinions or the friend-of-the-court briefs submitted by experts such as James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double helix, the foundation of modern genetic theory? I have dipped into what Scalia calls the “expert” briefs, and their discussions of genetics tend to be as technical as the most technical parts of the majority opinion. So if Scalia understood those discussions, why wouldn’t that enable him to understand the discussion of genetics in the majority opinion? If he didn’t understand the briefs, on what basis could he join the decision?
Posner stresses that all of the Justices, Breyer perhaps excepted, do not have a strong grasp of science.

Although Scalia may be the extreme case, the justices of the Supreme Court (Justice Breyer may be the only exception), and federal judges generally (state judges as well), tend to be uncomfortable with science and technology. Scalia’s discomfort with biochemistry seems of a piece with his embrace of “familiar tools of textual interpretation”—familiar to judges because the tools do not require any scientific understanding. But neither can they replace a willingness to learn a bit of science, at least. I am done picking on Justice Scalia.

If only that were true. Note that Judge Bauer dissented as to the snark.

. I join the opinion insofar as it affirms the grant of summary judgment  to  the  defendants.  But  as Judge  Posner  points  out,  many  lawyers decided against medical  school because of lack of  interest in the clinical aspects of medicine or a deeper inter‐ est in the less  scientific aspects of law. I was one of those  who chose law as opposed to medicine.  I think that the opinion made the necessary legal point  when it said that the record shows that summary judgment  was clearly the right decision. That’s where I would stop.

Can you imagine being a Judge on the 7th Circuit, and groaning when something like this is circulated, after the opinion has already been assigned? Easterbrook was on board. Here’s the rest of Posner’s epic string-cite after Scalia’s Myriad opinion, with citations to Rehnquist, Frankfurter, Friendly, and Hand (SDNY)!

Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.,  509 U.S. 579, 599 (1993) (Rehnquist, C.J., concurring in part  and dissenting in part) (“the various briefs filed in this case  …  deal  with  definitions  of  scientific  knowledge,  scientific  method, scientific validity, and peer review—in short, mat‐ ters far afield from the expertise of judges”); Marconi Wireless  Telegraph Co.  of  America  v. United  States,  320 U.S.  1,  60–61  (1943) (Frankfurter, J., dissenting in part)  (“it is an old obser‐ vation  that  the  training  of  Anglo‐American  judges  ill  fits  them to discharge the duties cast upon them by patent legis‐ lation”); Parke‐Davis & Co. v. H.K. Mulford Co., 189 F. 95, 115  (S.D.N.Y. 1911) (Hand, J.) (“I cannot stop without calling at‐ tention  to  the  extraordinary  condition  of  the  law  which  makes it possible for a man without any knowledge of even  the rudiments of chemistry to pass upon such questions as  these. … How long we shall continue to blunder along with‐ out the aid of unpartisan and authoritative  scientific assis‐ tance in the administration of justice, no one knows; but all  fair persons not conventionalized by provincial legal habits  of mind ought, I should think, unite to effect some such ad‐ vance”); Henry J. Friendly, Federal Jurisdiction: A General View  157 (1973) (“I am unable to perceive why we should not in‐ sist on the same level of scientific understanding on the pa‐ tent bench that clients demand of the patent bar, or why lack  of  such  understanding  by the  judge  should  be  deemed  a  precious asset”)