Bioethics Blogs

Posner vs. Hamilton on Google-Happy Judges

Some perspectives are fated to clash. The maverick versus the establishment. The innovator versus the traditionalist. The fox versus the hedgehog. Google versus the good old library.

At the crossroads of these timeless affrays sits a recent opinion out of the Seventh Circuit, Rowe v. Gibson. This prisoner medical treatment case saw Judge Richard Posner and Judge David Hamilton issue spectacularly dueling opinions. While a wary concurrence from Judge Ilana Rovner broke the stalemate in petitioner Rowe’s favor, the main event was the Posner-Hamilton clash, and the question of whose perspective will eventually prevail is anything but settled.

The subject matter of the dispute? When and whether it is kosher for a judge to Google the answers to basic scientific questions that come up in the course of deciding a case.

It might sound to the lay reader like a molehill for all the mountain that was made of it. But the debate cuts straight to the heart of a whole welter of philosophical tensions in the American legal system. What is the role of a judge, and how much discretion do we trust them with? Does the collision of adverse litigants reliably illuminate the truth, and is it legitimate to reach for a technological light source if those sparks fail to fly? Just what is that “genuine issue of material fact” thing lawyers always go on about? And is it reversible error for a judge to use Bing rather than Google?1

The Facts

Jeffrey Rowe’s case concerns his attempts to secure adequate medical treatment during his incarceration. Rowe suffers from gastroesophagial reflux disease (GERD), which, if you’ve ever experienced severe heartburn, you know hurts like an expletive.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.