The U.S. Supreme Court is not composed of scientists. We've seen this before. But they do end up hearing a lot of cases that involve science, and are forced to describe the concepts and technology before them. They do not always rise to the challenge.
In general, the issue tend to be a bizarre mix of over-complication — they take 43 words to explain what e-mail is — and oversimplification along the lines of "DNA is important." And if the issue is trying to make sure future generations know what they were thinking of when they made the decisions, you end up in a reductive argument about what needs to be easily defined. Internet but not computer. Telephone not at all. They even give up at some points and admit that they're dealing with "mysteries."
But they save the best quotation ever for porn, as it should be.
Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997)
While some allowances must be made for the fact that this case was in 1997, and the Internet wasn't the ubiquitous monster it is now, you cannot help but laugh at this decision's summation of the Internet and its various uses, delivered in Justice Stevens' majority opinion:
The Internet is an international network of interconnected computers.
I've made fun of this before, and was snottily informed by a clerk that they write these opinions "for posterity," i.e. for the future to understand what they're talking about. But in what universe will someone not know what the Internet is but know what a computer is? Or, in what universe will someone reading Supreme Court decisions and trying to understand them not have access to a dictionary for words they don't understand?
Of course, for anything we don't know now, we just google it or look it up on Wikipedia. On the Internet.
Later, the Court explains, "The Internet has experienced 'extraordinary growth.'" WHAT. WHY DID NO ONE SAY ANYTHING?
I will agree that this case is a wonderful historical document, as the Court describes the Internet in the manner of explorers finding their way through a strange new land:
Anyone with access to the Internet may take advantage of a wide variety of communication and information retrieval methods. These methods are constantly evolving and difficult to categorize precisely. But, as presently constituted, those most relevant to this case are electronic mail (e-mail), automatic mailing list services ("mail exploders," sometimes referred to as "listservs"), "newsgroups," "chat rooms," and the "World Wide Web." All of these methods can be used to transmit text; most can transmit sound, pictures, and moving video images. Taken together, these tools constitute a unique medium—known to its users as "cyberspace"—located in no particular geographical location but available to anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to the Internet.
No one tell them about blogs, that may break them.
Here, they tackle e-mail:
E-mail enables an individual to send an electronic message—generally akin to a note or letter—to another individual or to a group of addressees. The message is generally stored electronically, sometimes waiting for the recipient to check her "mailbox" and sometimes making its receipt known through some type of prompt.
Because "electronic mail" was not explanation enough.
U.S. v. American Library Association, Inc. (2003)
Addressing the problem of filters on library computers:
But there is also an enormous amount of pornography on the Internet, much of which is easily obtained.
This is a quote that induces so much laughter, that one will forsake food and water, unable to stop laughing until the body is reduced to a dry husk that blows away in the wind.
Sony v. Universal City Studios (1984)
Tell us, Supreme Court, what did we used to use to record television before the DVR?
Some members of the general public use video tape recorders sold by petitioners to record some of these broadcasts [of television programs], as well as a large number of other broadcasts.
It's even better than you think: this case involved Betamax, which they never define and is something a lot of us could actually use a definition of.
MGM v. Grokster (2005)
Respondents, Grokster, Ltd., and StreamCast Networks, Inc., defendants in the trial court, distribute free software products that allow computer users to share electronic files through peer-to-peer networks, so called because users' computers communicate directly with each other, not through central servers.
There are a lot of terms that are very technical and need long definitions. "Peer-to-peer" is not one of them. "Peer-to-peer" means exactly what it sounds like it means.
Dolbear v. American Bell Telephone Company (1888)
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum come the cases about the telephone patent, where the Court explains that the patent:
embraces the art of transferring to or impressing upon a current of electricity the vibrations of air produced by the human voice in articulate speech, in a way that the speech will be carried to and received by a listener at a distance on the line of the current.
Well, everything's clear now. I now know exactly what a telephone is and why it should be patented. Yes, it is hypocritical to complain when the Court is too technical and complain when they're overly simplistic. But, there has GOT to be a middle ground between explaining earnestly that there's porn on the Internet at technobabble.
Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company, Sarony (1883)
Have you ever wondered what a photograph is?
It is insisted in argument, that a photograph being a reproduction on paper of the exact features of some natural object or of some person, is not a writing of which the producer is the author.
The Court eventually decided that a photograph is a "writing" and the photographer can copyright it.
Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad (2013)
Similar to the earlier struggle of the court to understand the Internet, we now bring you to last year's attempt to grapple with genetics:
Changes in the genetic sequence are called mutations. ... Some mutations are harmless, but others can cause disease or increase the risk of disease. As a result, the study of genetics can lead to valuable medical breakthroughs.
"The study of genetics can lead to valuable medical breakthroughs." Oh, Supreme Court, now you're just being cute.
While the Court may have gotten the correct result in this case, they really struggled to understand molecular biology in order to decide whether genes could be patented. And came to the incorrect conclusion the cDNA isn't a natural product.
And we have to include Justice Antonin Scalia's concurrence, where he says that he can't agree with any part of the case that actually describes molecular biology:
I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I-A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief. It suffices for me to affirm, having studied the opinions below and the expert briefs presented here, that the portion of DNA isolated from its natural state sought to be patented is identical to that portion of the DNA in its natural state; and that complementary DNA (cDNA) is a synthetic creation not normally present in nature.
Emphasis ours. He can't even believe in the finer points of DNA. HE CAN'T BELIEVE IT. He admits to not being an expert in the details of the science, which is nice. But then he can't just believe what's he's told about it. Antonin Scalia is a Catholic who can believe the tenets of that religion, but his beliefs cannot extend to the explanation of molecular biology provided by experts.
Maryland v. King
In 2013, the Supreme Court upheld a Maryland statute which allowed the taking and analysis of the DNA of anyone who is in custody, without a warrant. Why? Because it's imperative that police officers be able to identify the people in their custody and what other crimes they've committed.
Here, the Court once again lavishes praise on molecular biology:
The advent of DNA technology is one of the most significant scientific advancements of our era. The full potential for use of genetic markers in medicine and science is still being explored, but the utility of DNA identification in the criminal justice system is already undisputed.
Now, DNA has been a boon to criminal justice. But you've got to love the Court both acknowledging that the science is still ongoing and that it's utility is undisputed. And then the Court sees into the future, to defeat the question of the length of time it takes to process a DNA sample:
the delay in processing DNA from arrestees is being reduced to a substantial degree by rapid technical advances.
In case you were wondering, Scalia remains consistently against DNA. He, along with Justices Giunsberg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, dissented.
Funk Brothers Seed Company v. Kalo Inoculant Company (1948)
This case decided that the use of a natural phenomena could not be patented, which is the important part. The specific process at issue? Well:
Through some mysterious process leguminous plants are able to take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the plant for conversion to organic nitrogenous compounds. The ability of these plants to fix nitrogen from the air depends on the presence of bacteria of the genus Rhizobium which infect the roots of the plant and form nodules on them. These root-nodule bacteria of the genus Rhizobium fall into at least six species. No one species will infect the roots of all species of leguminous plants. But each will infect well-defined groups of those plants. Each species of root-nodule bacteria is made up of distinct strains which vary in efficiency. Methods of selecting the strong strains and of producing a bacterial culture from them have long been known. The bacteria produced by the laboratory methods of culture are placed in a powder or liquid base and packaged for sale to and use by agriculturists in the inoculation of the seeds of leguminous plants. This also has long been well known.
It's long been well known. And is also mysterious. I'll take their word for it.
Images: Free Internet by hobvias sudoneighm/flickr/CC BY 2.0; Old telephones, Milton Keynes Museum, Buckinghamshire by Snapshooter46/flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0;Visual DNA by Richard IJzermans/flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0