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Summary of the Judicial Notebook Column by the Courtwatch Committee







 by Eve M. Brank, University of Nebraska-Lincoln



SPSSI’s Courtwatch Committee writes the Judicial Notebook column each month for the APA Monitor.  Committee members write columns to address an upcoming Supreme Court case or important legal issue with relevance to psychologists. The purpose of the Judicial Notebook is to make Monitor readers aware of legal issues that may affect or be of interest to them and to let psychologists know about pending cases in which they could become professionally involved.  In the past four months the committee has examined death penalty sentencing, employment discrimination, DNA evidence, and childhood vaccines.


In the March Monitor, Dr. Ryan Winter and Jonathan Vallano (both from Florida International University) described the Florida death penalty system and a potential “flaw” that does not require unanimity of jurors in their sentencing recommendations provided to the judge. Empirical research on non-death penalty cases suggest the Florida system may lead to more verdict-driven rather than evidence-driven decisions, and jurors may be more prone to vote with the majority’s initial decision on conviction.  Winter and Vallano suggest that further psychological research should examine the jury’s task in Florida to determine if the current procedure produces fair decisions.


Dr. Eve Brank and Lindsey Wylie (both from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) addressed a U.S. Supreme Court employment case concerning the need for direct evidence versus mixed motives of age discrimination. In the April issue of the Monitor, Brank and Wylie suggested that even more than race or gender discrimination, age discrimination in the workplace may be harder to demonstrate as a sole factor because many people hold stereotypical attitudes towards older workers that equate older age with incompetence.  Continued empirical research is needed on ageism in the workplace and the influence of negative age stereotypes on employment decisions.


In May, Dr. Jennifer Groscup (Scripps College) wrote a Monitor article that detailed juror’s reliance on DNA evidence. A U.S. Supreme Court case heard this term addressed how the courts should handle unreliable DNA evidence and potentially misleading expert testimony about DNA evidence. Of particular importance in this case was the expert’s confusion of source probability with random match probability, and the expert’s underestimation of the likelihood that one of the defendant’s brothers could have been the perpetrator. Groscup noted that empirical research suggests the Court should be concerned with the errors made in this case. Future researchers may be able to assist the courts with similar issues by providing empirical results concerning how jurors perceive and weigh DNA evidence, especially when experts make presentation errors.


Finally, Dr. Jennifer Robbennolt and Matthew Taskin (both from the University of Illinois) in their June article of the Monitor discussed the recent autism test cases brought under The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 and the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP).  Because autism is not listed as a side-effect in the Vaccine Injury Table, plaintiffs must demonstrate a causal link between the vaccine and autism. In recent cases, a causal link has not been adequately demonstrated.  Robbennolt and Taskin noted that psychologists could address research questions related to how the public understands scientific knowledge, how that knowledge is communicated to the public, and how scientific knowledge is handled in legal decisions. Research is already underway that explores the VICP’s functioning and its potential as a model for other injury compensation programs.


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