30 January 2006

Science v. the Supremes

Just in time to watch Sam Alito get confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but too late to influence the debate, New Scientist weighs in this week with some thoughts on the future of American science at the hands of a court tilting rightward. It's subscription-only (worth it if you have $200 burning a hole in a pocket somewhere), so I'll steal a few excerpts for you:

Areas affected could include genetic screening, intrusion of a tech-savvy federal government into individual privacy, and the teaching of intelligent design in schools.
...
Past decisions by the court have helped the US lead the world in areas such as environmental protection. "Once, the US supreme court was a beacon of light on a lot of issues," says Robert McKeever, a political scientist at the University of Reading, UK. But in recent years the initiative has passed to Europe and Canada...

Experts think that the new court won't be much different from the old one on matters concerning the environment. The conspicuous exception could be on the question of who has the "standing" to file environmental lawsuits. ...

The records of both Roberts and Alito suggest that they are likely to rule more narrowly than Sandra Day O'Connor, the judge Alito will replace, on the issue of who can sue. "I fully expect that both Roberts and Alito will now be sympathetic to restricting environmental standing," says Robert Percival of the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore.
...
By contrast, genetic screening of fetuses could be anathema to the new court. Following the supreme court's 1973 ruling in the Roe vs Wade case, women have an unrestricted right to abort a fetus in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. But the prospect that parents might screen fetuses for genetic traits they consider desirable - and abort those that do not have them - could lead legislators to pass laws limiting this right.
...
Also uncertain is the new court's position on whether intelligent design (ID), the creationist challenge to Darwinism, can be taught in schools. Initial impressions suggest that ID might find more favour than before in the new court. "Justice Alito does not appear to be a big fan of the wall separating church and state," says Robert Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State...

A little worrying, I suppose. But then, there's always the Souter scenario:

Predictions are one thing; what happens in practice is another. History tells us that analysing how a judge might vote when appointed to the supreme court is fraught with uncertainty. In 1990, when President George H. W. Bush appointed David Souter to the supreme court, the judge was expected to be conservative, yet as a supreme court justice he has often opposed his conservative colleagues.

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