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Genomics for Judges

Educating Illinois Judges On How Genetic Information Can Impact Court Decisions

Genomic research will eventually uncover a complete picture of how our genetic information, acting in concert with our experiences, influences our behavior, our risk for disease, and our responsiveness to medical treatments. These are all subjects of great academic and personal interest, but what happens when they are connected to a question of legality?  When considering whether an individual’s genetic inheritance can be blamed for criminal behavior, or how information on disease predisposition should be used, who is qualified to testify, and what kinds of knowledge are needed to make sound judicial decisions?

The Supreme Court of Illinois and its Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, in coordination with members of the Illinois Judicial Conference Committee on Education, appointed by the Supreme Court, are responsible for facilitating educational resources for Illinois judges, including those pertaining to sciences in the law. The Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) at the University of Illinois had the unique opportunity to work with the AOIC in offering a new seminar, “Genomics for(TM) Judges,” that was designed to prepare judges to grapple with legal questions involving DNA sequencing and analysis, as well as related technologies, in the courts today and in the future.

Hon. Kathleen Kauffman, Illinois Judicial Conference Committee on Education member, at the Institute for Genomic Biology. 

The two-day course, held at the IGB on the Urbana-Champaign campus, was also supported by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and the College of Law.  The program capitalized on the IGB’s record of public education and depth of expertise in both basic genomics research and the impact of genomics on society.  The seminar included presentations by internationally renowned scientists and legal experts from the University of Illinois and other major institutions, as well as Gina Kolata, a New York Times science journalist.

Forty-eight judges and justices from around Illinois were immersed in a rich scientific experience that included the structure and function of DNA, how gene function is influenced by the environment, and how genome sequences are analyzed.  Other sessions explored intersections between genomics and legal issues, including the patentability of genomic technologies, the relationship between genetics and criminal behavior, and the accuracy and admissibility of DNA evidence.  As part of a simulated exercise, judges were given the opportunity to work in a lab and to extract DNA from strawberries. The full agenda for the seminar can be viewed at http://bit.ly/M60a6N.

The rapid pace of progress in genomic biology means that the gap between current knowledge and the biology that most adults learned in high school or college courses is continually increasing.  Continuing education courses such as the Genomics for Judges program provide an opportunity to close that gap.  This can be crucial to judges’ ability to understand and interpret evidence and testimony heard in the courtroom.  “We can only make decisions about a case based on the evidence that we hear in the courtroom,” said Hon. Kathleen Kauffman, Illinois Judge and a member of the Committee on Education.  “So these kinds of programs are really important because they can give us some background information.”

Hon. Heinz Rudolf, an Illinois Judge, member of the Committee on Education, and a Fellow in the Advanced Science & Technology Adjudication Resource Center (ASTAR), a program that provides science and technology training for judges, acted as discussion facilitator during the Genomics for Judges seminar.  Judge Rudolf highlighted the importance of a judicial education course focused on genomics.  “As technology and our society evolves, we know science is going to be more and more prevalent in our courtroom and we as judges need to be prepared."

Hon. Heinz Rudolf working in the IGB lab, extracting DNA during one of the exercises during the seminar.

Hon. Scott Shore, Illinois Judge, and also a member of the Committee on Education, agreed: “I believe that genomics will have a large impact on us in our daily lives, in our national lives . . . why not be interested in the field?” he said.  “What fascinated me about the field of genetics is the potential that it has for impact on the law, and the law will also impact genetics.”

The level of enthusiasm among the attendees was high, and many asked insightful questions of the presenters and expressed their excitement about the content of the course.  “When the seminar became available, I ran to my chief judge and I said I want to do this!” said Hon. Susan Tungate, Illinois Judge, “. . . there were a lot of judges who felt that way.”   

As DNA sequencing and other biotechnologies advance, the rate of new developments in genomic biology and its impact on society and in the courtroom will continue to grow. The success of the Genomics for Judges program has already prompted plans to address the need for genomics education by offering the seminar on a regular basis.

Written By: 
Claudia Lutz. Photos by Kathryn Coulter.