A federally funded grant is helping judges in Missouri and 12 other states learn the science behind the coronavirus pandemic.
The nonprofit National Courts and Sciences Institute regularly teaches judges about emerging issues in science. The $150,000 from the State Justice Institute, a congressionally funded nonprofit meant to improve the quality of state courts, will allow nearly 60 judges to take the 12-month training, followed by six months of follow-up research.
“We survey judges all across the country to try to anticipate the types of cases that are going to be coming into court,” said Missouri Supreme Court Judge Zel Fischer, president of the National Courts and Sciences Institute. “And of course the pandemic kept coming up.”
Judges are likely to hear cases related to the coronavirus vaccines, Fischer said, and about whether businesses or health care providers were negligent in how they did their jobs. Any of those kinds of cases will require testimony from experts.
“Part of this training is to help judges be able to distinguish between real science and junk science, and whether or not certain experts have the knowledge and qualification to testify to the opinions they intend to give,” he said.
While large liability cases may be months or years away, judges are already dealing with the coronavirus pandemic when it comes to local public health orders, said Rob Gatter, a professor at St. Louis University’s Center for Health Law Studies.
“If a state gives the authority to a state health official or a state health department to take all actions that are “necessary” in order to protect the population from a contagious disease, what’s necessary is different for one disease versus another,” Gatter said. “That comes from knowing something about the disease.”
Though the grant enabled the National Courts and Sciences Institute to expand the number of judges who get the training, it still is not enough to cover everyone who was interested. Fischer said the intent is for judges who are trained to pass the information on to their colleagues.
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