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November 8, 2001

SMU STATISTICS PROFESSOR HELPS JUDGES INTERPRET EVIDENCE IN COMPLICATED LEGAL CASES

DALLAS (SMU) -- Statistics may come easy to social scientists and economists, but not to many judges or citizens who serve on juries.

And increasingly, judges and juries are being asked to weigh complicated statistical evidence in legal cases. Lawsuits over the 2000 presidential election, the 2000 U.S. Census, redistricting, and employment discrimination are just a few examples of legal cases that have involved statistical evidence.

Bill Schucany, a professor of statistical science at Southern Methodist University, is using his expertise to help judges weigh statistical evidence presented in lawsuits.

Schucany is one of a growing number of scientific and technical experts around the country who have accepted appointments to help state and federal judges through an organization called the Registry of Independent Scientific and Technical Advisors.

The registry, which is run out of the Duke University School of Law, was established in 1999 with a grant from a private foundation. So far, the registry has about 50 experts in areas ranging from economics to medicine. Schucany is the only expert from Texas.

Registry members have been referred to judges in eight cases throughout the country, including a Clean Water Act case in Georgia, a product liability case in Pennsylvania and a criminal case in Missouri involving a new DNA identification method.

Schucany was recommended to the registry because of the strong reputation he has developed during his 30 years as a teacher, researcher and journal editor. He has particular expertise in using statistics to analyze employment discrimination cases as well as contract disputes concerning extensive business records.

Schucany handled his first case for the registry this past summer. A federal judge in Louisiana requested a statistician from the registry to help him analyze statistical information provided by lawyers on both sides of an employment discrimination lawsuit against a Louisiana chemical company. The judge submitted a list of specific questions to Schucany, and Schucany prepared a four-page report responding to the questions. The judge issued some rulings in the case based on Schucany’s reports.

Schucany said it is his job to make sure the statistical methodology used by the “experts” is sound enough to have appeared in textbooks or been published in professional journals, or is otherwise considered scientifically credible.

“I’ve seen instances where someone knew just enough statistics to be dangerous, and they were using some statistical tools that were really of questionable validity,” Schucany said.

William V. Dorsaneo III, a well-known litigation expert in SMU’s Dedman School of Law, said independent experts such as Schucany could be useful to judges.

“Judges may not be in any position to decide whether the method used by an expert is an appropriate methodology,” Dorsaneo said.

The Registry of Independent Scientific and Technical Advisors is one of several programs nationwide that have been set up recently to aid the courts in finding skilled independent experts. While judges have had the authority to appoint independent experts since 1975, relatively few have done so, in part because of widespread opposition from lawyers who fear that independent experts could have tremendous influence over juries.

The practice has gained increased attention lately, largely because of support from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Breyer has published several articles on the subject, including one in the Summer 2000 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, in which he wrote that “most judges lack the scientific training that might facilitate the evaluation of scientific claims or the evaluation of expert witnesses who make such claims….In this age of science, we must build legal foundations that are sound in science as well as in law.”

In the 1993 case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, the Supreme Court called on judges to act as “gatekeepers” to ensure that “any and all scientific testimony or evidence admitted is not only relevant, but reliable.”

Corinne Houpt, director of the Registry of Independent Scientific and Technical Advisors, said she also would like to see registry experts used by parties who try to resolve disputes through alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes.

Schucany said his work with the registry, as well as previous work as an expert witness for both plaintiffs and defendants in legal cases, has provided new areas of research for him and has been beneficial to his students.

“It helps show them the real-world impact of statistics,” he said.


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