Breyer Urges Judges to Learn About Genetics Law
At the forefront of a "rare public crusade," Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer called on scientists and others to help judges "better understand" developments in the field of genetics and their potential impact on court decisions, USA Today reports. "Traditionally, some have believed that we need not know science but only law to make decisions. This view is increasingly unrealistic. Since the implications of our decisions in the real world often can and should play a role in our legal decisions, the clearer our understanding of the relevant science, the better," Breyer said last week during a conference at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Breyer called on lawyers, economists, scientists and the biotechnology industry to engage in an "ongoing conversation" with judges on scientific issues through new seminars, working groups and permanent research bodies. He identified three areas where the need to educate judges is "greatest" -- the patenting of genes, to predict disease and the storage of genetic information on databases for use in criminal cases. "Rapid developments in genetic research have led to calls for legal change, namely (in) patent law," Breyer said. Genetic testing is also likely to raise issues of medical privacy. One privacy issue stems from genetic tests that can predict disease risks not only for an individual, but for his or her family members. "There is a sense that some people should have a chance to get at the private medical records (of others)," Breyer said, adding, "But on the other hand, when the results of genetic testing can mean so much, people want more than ever to keep that private." Breyer noted that none of the Supreme Court Justices have a background in the natural sciences, and the court has only decided one "major" genetics case so far -- a 1980 decision permitting the patenting of human and non-human genes.
But Breyer predicts a larger role for genetics in the Supreme Court's caseload in the future. Christopher Asplen, director of the Justice Department's National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence, praised Breyer's speech, calling it "remarkable." "It's great that he has engaged on the issue and that he has showed such concern for how what the (Supreme) Court does plays out in the real world," Asplen stated. Although it remains "rare" for Supreme Court justices to speak out on public issues, Breyer has publicly urged greater scientific education for judges at least three times this year (Willing, USA Today, 11/24).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.