Some of the country's top judges are spending this week at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory with some of the country's top scientists to bone up on the science behind some of the complex issues they encounter in the courtroom.

The judges, mostly from Maryland and Ohio, got a crash course in nanotechnology, synthetic biology and environmental biotechnology -- all subjects they may have to tangle with in highly technical cases.

"Judges are empowered to do better, understand the issues better and guide the process better," said Rufus King, chief judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. "Judges need to be gatekeepers to keep junk science out of the courtroom."

While at Berkeley lab, the judges got hands-on lab experience using pipettes and gel electrophoresis to isolate and identify DNA fragments.

"It would be basically like what they might see in court from DNA fingerprinting," said microbial ecologist Terry Hazen, head of the lab's ecology department.

The judges also toured the lab's Advanced Light Source division and the Molecular Foundry and were treated to talks by Nobel Prize winners George Smoot and Steve Chu, the director of Berkeley lab.

The program is part of the Advanced Science and Technology Adjudication Resource Center's mission to train more science-literate judges. The center is an offshoot of a program to bring judges up to speed on the Human Genome Project and its potential ramifications on the judicial system.

"This is our only chance to talk to scientists outside the context of a particular case so that we can ask questions," said Joan Zeldon, a District of Columbia judge. "They are wonderful teachers here, so it's a great privilege."

Science is finding its way into the courtroom more and more, and jurors have come to expect scientific evidence to back up a case. Hazen calls it the "CSI factor."

"They've become so acclimated to seeing DNA evidence," Hazen said.

Around 50 judges came to the Berkeley lab to get a handle on the science they could face in cases with environmental issues, such as the legality of using genetically modified bacteria for hazardous waste clean-up.

"It's good for them to understand whether to exclude a certain expert or allow certain evidence and help them make better decisions," Hazen said.

After the first two days of lectures and discussions, the judges put what they learned to the test with hypothetical scenarios such as a toxic chemical spill from a ship put off course in Puget Sound during a storm. In that scenario, the state hired a company to clean it up using bacteria engineered to digest the chemical. But environmental groups sued to stop the release, saying the engineered DNA could be transferred into naturally occurring bacteria and harm the environment.

The judges and scientists discussed the ins and outs of the theoretical case, such as whether the toxic chemical or the genetically modified cleanup bacteria was more likely to cause harm and whether the plaintiff's experts on genetically modified crops were qualified to testify about bacteria.

One judge said she has already dealt with a similar case, when styrene spilled out of a rail car near Cincinnati.

"I had to find questions and answers quickly," said Melba Marsh, an Ohio judge. "Even talking about it now I can feel my pulse."

Other scenarios involved technology to detect trace amounts of substances in the fingerprints of airline pilots to reveal illegal drug use, and the accidental release of polonium near a public park.

"The judges have to understand the basic terms of reference, such as what is a microbe," said Franklin Zweig, president of the resource center.

The judges who learn the science will not only be able to use their new expertise in their own courtroom, they can also advise colleagues on procedural matters involving science, such as where to find appropriate experts, he said.

"We're training the trainers," Zweig said. "Our experience is that judge-to-judge communication is far superior for improving justice than any other form of education."

Hazen said that of the 50 or so scientific and public audiences he lectures to every year, the judges are one of the most engaging groups.

"They're really fascinated and interested in this," he said. "They're extremely good researchers and very adept at getting up to speed quickly to make a good decision."

"They're starting out with a blank slate, but they fill it in pretty quickly."

Betsy Mason covers science and the national laboratories. Reach her at 925-847-2158 or bmason@cctimes.com.