June 27, 2014

Say Goodbye to Secret Edits: @SCOTUS_Servo Alerts Readers to Supreme Court Revisions

By Susannah Savage and Daniel Schuman

U.S. Supreme CourtD.C. attorney David Zvenyach just made it much harder for the U.S. Supreme Court to secretly revise its opinions. On June 2nd, the lawyer and coder launched @SCOTUS_servo, a Twitter account that alerts followers when the Court edits its decisions.

The inspiration for the Twitter account may have come from Justice Antonin Scalia, whose infamous April 2014 dissent in EPA v. EME Homer City Generation mischaracterized a 2001 Court opinion Scalia himself had written. Within days of Scalia’s well-publicized error, the Court quietly edited his dissent, erasing the mistake from the public record. According to a new study by Harvard professor Richard Lazarus, such belated revisions are by no means uncommon. Even in the Internet era, no Supreme Court decision is considered final until its publication in the “printed bound volumes” of the U.S. Reports, the official record of the Court’s rulings. Publication in the U.S. Reports can take years; during that often lengthy time, justices may revise their opinions, even after a decision's “preliminary publication.”

The Supreme Court, Professor Lazarus explains, not only revises typos—it makes “truly substantive changes in factual statements and legal reasoning.” In 2006, for example, a sentence from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s concurring opinion in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), a seminal gay rights case, disappeared from public record. O’Connor had said Justice Scalia agreed a Texas anti-sodomy law violated the Court’s equal protection principles. Deleting the sentence invalidated years of legal scholarship and debate over its meaning.

Often, the public does not know when the Court changes an opinion. As the New York Times explains, the Court “almost never notes when a change has been made, much less specifies what it was.” Only four publishers have direct access to the Court’s revisions. Until @SCOTUS_servo, the public could only learn about changes through meticulous comparison of original decisions to those published in the U.S. Reports. The surreptitious scrubbing creates controversy in the legal community, which frequently cites the unrevised “slip opinions” the Court issues prior to official publication.

@SCOTUS_servo solves this problem. The Twitter account, as Mr. Zvenyach explains, crawls through electronic copies of decisions posted in the Supreme Court’s website. Whenever the program detects a change in a decision’s text, it alerts @SCOTUS_servo followers. Mr. Zvenyach recently partnered with civic coder Dr. Josh Tauberer, who generates images of altered decisions with the revisions highlighted in red.

Ideally, the Court would provide notice to the public when it changes its opinions. It should also publish the opinions in a format easy for computers to read, not just PDFs, which would make revisions more easily identifiable.

@SCOTUS_servo demonstrates the power of code in making government more transparent. Let's hope the Court catches up.

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