The United States Supreme Court and the World Wide Web. (Cases, Controversy, and the Court)

By Williams, Charles F. | Social Education, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

The United States Supreme Court and the World Wide Web. (Cases, Controversy, and the Court)


Williams, Charles F., Social Education


HOW CAN a person get a copy of a recent United States Supreme Court opinion, the briefs that were submitted to the Court, or a recording--at least a transcript--of the oral arguments?

Back in the early 1990s--that is, before the days of the World Wide Web--there was a simple answer: "With great difficulty." A person could pay for access to a specialized legal database or subscribe to one of the Court reporting services, which, for a hefty fee, would send regular updates on the Court's work.

Of course, there were always the timely and reliable stories filed by the Supreme Court journalists whose job was to follow the Court (see the article by Charles Bierbauer on p. 63). And since its inception in the Warren Court era, the American Bar Association publication Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases has provided analyses of the issues and arguments in every case. (1)

But before the web, to read the full text of the Court's new opinions, a person had to visit a law library or sign up with an expensive commercial provider of legal information. Similarly, the parties' briefs were generally available for public review only at the Supreme Court, at special federal document repositories around the country, and after unpredictable delays, through commercial services. To view oral arguments? Forget about it. A single company was authorized to produce the transcripts, which one had to pay to review. The other alternative was to travel to Washington, D.C. to wait in line on the Court's steps for an opportunity to observe a portion of an argument.

In fact, in 1993, when University of California--San Diego professor Peter Irons released cassette copies of portions of the oral arguments in just a selected number of historical cases, he found he had to defy a National Archives rule in order to do so. (2)

The web--and the Court itself--has changed all that, which most people, including the justices, agree is a good thing. Although the issues before the Court are often unavoidably technical, the justices strive to write in plain English for a readership that extends beyond the legal community.

For many, however, this new period of Supreme Court access really dawned with the overwhelming public interest in Bush v. Gore). (3) True, the World Wide Web had already quietly opened a window on the Court's work, with opinions becoming available free of charge on a number of websites. The Court had even launched its own website on April 17, 2000. And a tiny "dotcom" called Findlaw (4) had already hit on the idea of regularly scanning and posting the Supreme Court briefs on its website for all to see-for free. (5) (All of this took place with little fanfare.) With Bush v. Gore, however, Americans who suddenly found themselves listening to oral arguments on the radio learned that they could download the full audio files and read the full argument transcripts at the Supreme Court's official website. When the election decisions were handed down, every major news site linked to the full text opinions.

Teachers thus learned that they could gain access to all the source materials that go into a Supreme Court case, including the parties' briefs, the oral argument transcripts, and the prior opinions and statutes that frame the issues-all for the price of an Internet connection. Now, instead of wondering whether Supreme Court materials are accessible and, if so, at what cost, the question is which free site will work best?

A number of first-rate websites are devoted to current issues and analysis of the Supreme Court. The following sites are particularly useful when looking for primary source documents and news.

The Official Supremes www.supremecourtus.gov

Since its first cautious step into cyberspace in spring 2000, this site has made up for lost time by growing into a superb, timely, and well-designed source for all things "Supreme: And if it doesn't have the specific documents, it almost certainly will explain where to find them. …

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