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The battle against science inside the US Supreme Court

September 23, 20224 Mins Read

The importance of science in guiding public policy is being undermined by a new ultraconservative supermajority on the Supreme Court of the United States. Academics worry that the outcome may be devastating for democracy, justice, and public health.

Late in June, the US Supreme Court handed down three significant rulings that eliminated the right to an abortion, relaxed gun laws, and scaled back environmental rules. The judgements all rejected important information regarding how the court’s actions will damage public health and safety, despite the fact that their justifications varied.

Many scientists worry that this unsettling trend may weaken the influence of science on public policy. Currently, many are concerned about the viability of American democracy itself as the court is ready to hear a significant case on election practises.

The Supreme Court, sometimes regarded as the most powerful court in the free world, decides on constitutional cases at all levels of government as well as legislation passed by Congress and state legislatures.
According to Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge who teaches at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Supreme Court of the United States has unusual power when compared to high courts in other democracies. This is due in part to its small size and the fact that its nine justices are appointed for life. Because of this, appointees are both highly political and extremely significant.

The US government’s partisan differences make it difficult to enact new legislation and nearly impossible to propose constitutional changes, meaning that the court’s decision on important topics must be taken into consideration.can remain the rule of the land for at least one generation.

The balance of the evidence

The Supreme Court has been ideologically leaning to the right for more than ten years, but after former president Donald Trump secured three appointments, culminating in Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to succeed the late liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020, the court’s political centre of gravity drastically changed. The end consequence, according to experts, is a six-person ultraconservative supermajority that frequently has doubts about science, if not an open hostility.

The Supreme Court has played a variety of roles throughout American history, but this case is truly unique, according to Wendy Parmet, co-director of Northeastern University’s Center for Health Policy and Law in Boston, Massachusetts. The overarching theme is that they are contemptuous of science and the effects of their judgments in the real world, whether they are upholding or destroying individual rights in some instances.

In contrast, the court has given scientific and technical knowledge the benefit of the doubt in a number of recent rulings. For instance, the court determined in the 1984 case of Chevron USA v. Natural Resources Defense Council that government agencies should be granted discretion when interpreting federal statutes as long as their policies are reasonable and supported by sound analysis. The court addressed scientific issues head-on in the case Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals from 1993, outlining some fundamental guidelines that judges should follow when assessing the evidence and expert testimony, such as ensuring that hypotheses are testable and the evidence has undergone peer review.

Some high-profile matters that were brought before the court were influenced by scientific data. For instance, the Supreme Court’s decision in 2007 that carbon dioxide, and therefore other greenhouse gases, qualify as pollutants under the Clean Air Act, laid the ground for current climate legislation. Additionally, decisions on the proper sentence for juveniles guilty of serious crimes were directly influenced by research on the development of the teenage brain. For instance, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons in 2005 that it was harsh to sentence those who were under the age of 18 when a crime was committed to death. The use of life sentences without parole for adolescents was restricted in many cases during the following 10 years.

But as the court’s ideological stance went to the right, so did its perspective on science. In 2021, the situation changed for neuroscientists participating in juvenile sentencing. In contrast to previous rulings, the Supreme Court permitted a Mississippi court to sentence Brett Jones to life in prison without first doing a mental assessment that considered his potential for reform.

When Jones was just 15 years old, he was found guilty of killing his grandpa.
There is no way to claim that their choice was informed by research; they blatantly disregarded it, said Daniel Weinberger, director of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University. That is a mindset, and it is cause for concern.

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