Lawyers, Judges And Their Fear Of Science

Readers know that I love opinions authored by 7th Circuit jurist Richard Posner, not because I agree with what he says, but because I love the way he writes.  Never boring.

In a recent decision he goes out of his way to chide the lawyers and judges in a case for their unforgivably poor understanding of science. 

The underlying case involved a prison inmate’s claim that prison officials subjected him to “cruel and unusual punishment” by depriving him of his high blood pressure medication for three weeks.   The  22-year-old inmate, who had early signs of hypertension but was otherwise healthy, alleged that this deprivation put him at risk of death, even the only evidence in support of that allegation was a single blood pressure reading during the three-week period showing slightly elevated blood pressure.

The district court dismissed the case, finding that the defendants had not acted with deliberate indifference.  But the district court went on to state in its opinion that the deprivation of medication for three weeks created an “objectively serious medical condition.” 

That statement triggered Judge Posner’s lengthy detour in his opinion affirming the district court’s judgment because it was absolutely, totally, completely, utterly without any basis whatsoever in the medical literature.

According to Judge Posner, the district court could have resolved the case without addressing any medical questions. “But if they were going to venture an opinion on the ‘objective seriousness’ of the plaintiff’s ‘medical condition,’” Posner wrote, “they had to get the condition right—which was not hypertension but the medical consequences, in fact negligible, of a three‐week deprivation of medicine for mild, early‐stage hypertension.”  He added:

The discomfort of the legal profession, including the judiciary, with science and technology is not a new phenomenon. Innumerable are the lawyers who explain that they picked law over a technical field because they have a ‘math block.’ . . .  But it’s increasingly concerning, because of the extraordinary rate of scientific and other technological advances that figure increasingly in litigation.

He concluded that the “legal profession must get over its fear and loathing of science.”

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