Clever-Code Exposes Changes To Supreme Court Opinions

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The Supreme Court has long made surreptitious changes to its opinions without telling anyone. In response, a coder has created a tool to flag & publicize those changes. This otherwise would not be practically possible… Until now.

The only way changes to a Supreme Court decision could be detected in the past was a pain-staking comparison of earlier and later copies — provided, of course, someone knew a decision had been changed in the first place. Which was unlikely.

Enter the crafty code of David Zvenyach, general counsel to the Council of the District of Columbia, who, in his spare time, likes to experiment with computer code. It all started when he read a New York Times article by Adam Liptak outlining how original statements by the Justices about everything from EPA policy to American Jewish communities, were disappearing from decisions. The article was based on a study by Harvard law professor Richard Lazurus.

Altering court document records after the fact… with new language that says something entirely different, as you can imagine, is a problem for lawyers, scholars, journalists and everyone else who relies on Supreme Court opinions. Plus, it’s literally & figuratively… against the law. Knowing this Zvenyach decided to so something about it.

Using Node, an application written in JavaScript, to crawl the “slip” opinions posted to the Supreme Court website Zvenyach deployed a crafty notification system. When the application, which performs a crawl every five minutes, detects a change, it notifies the automated Twitter account (@Scotus_servo), which tweets out an alert. The court website’s terms of service doesn’t prohibit such aggregation of data, nor should it since the documents containing court decisions are within the public domain.

Since Zvenyach launched the code, another coder has added a feature that highlights the changes, and likewise tweets them out.

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The @Scotus_servo account on twitter is but one example of simple code improving judicial transparency. Another is @FISACourt,  inspired by Zvenyach, and crawls the docket of the country’s controversial spy court & alerts the public when there’s a new development in important cases about government surveillance.

These tools appear so cheap to create & deploy. They deliver such obvious benefits. Its strange, but no wonder courts and government websites don’t integrate them as a matter of course. And yet, it matters not. As in the case of the Supreme Court, it appears a single man’s simple script is for now the best way for the public to stay up to date on unannounced changes to the law of the land.

 

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