28 votes

Clever piece of code exposes hidden changes to Supreme Court opinions

by Jeff John Roberts | GigaOM

SUMMARY: The Supreme Court has long made surreptitious changes to its opinions without telling anyone. In response, a coder has created a tool that flags and publicizes those changes.

Supreme Court opinions are the law of the land, and so it’s a problem when the Justices change the words of the decisions without telling anyone. This happens on a regular basis, but fortunately a lawyer in Washington appears to have just found a solution.

The issue, as Adam Liptak explained in the New York Times, is that original statements by the Justices about everything from EPA policy to American Jewish communities, are disappearing from decisions — and being replaced by new language that says something entirely different. As you can imagine, this is a problem for lawyers, scholars, journalists and everyone else who relies on Supreme Court opinions.

Until now, the only way to detect when a decision has been altered is a pain-staking comparison of earlier and later copies — provided, of course, that someone knew a decision had been changed in the first place. Thanks to a simple Twitter tool, the process may become much easier.

Code to the rescue

David Zvenyach is general counsel to the Council of the District of Columbia and, in his spare time, likes to experiment with computer code. Upon learning of Liptak’s column, which was based on a study by Harvard law professor Richard Lazurus, he decided to so something about it.

Last week, he launched @Scotus_servo, a Twitter account that alerts followers whenever a change is made to a Supreme Court opinion.

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I wonder what the going rate for a

change a supreme court judge charges?

@FISACourt also has a similar

@FISACourt also has a similar watchdog setup.

egapele's picture

Yah...not liking the word "Supreme" anymore

when describing such a powerful part of the branches of our government.

A complete dissolution of the entire federal government....

and we won't need a supreme court.

Correct me if I am wrong, but

Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems changing the wording of a court document after the fact would be a serious crime if we actually held any of these types accountable anymore???

“Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the government take care of him better take a closer look at the American Indian.” ― Henry Ford.

The reason law dictionaries reference past cases

Defining words carefully at law is a more precise and laborious task than common language dictionaries, simply because the stakes are higher, not only for people involved in cases-by-case outcomes, but also those cases that set precedence.

Whenever anyone purposely changes past decisions to read differently, they do indeed subvert the purpose of publishing those decisions in the first place. A clerical error might have been more admissible in the days before the ease computers give us to search, cut, and paste, but when a pattern emerges that creates a need for this kind of program to detect this frequently happening, it's a bad sign for us all if those caught doing this are not tried and punished for it.

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them. - Frederick Douglass

What was Winston Smith's job?

Looks like this versatile tool could be used throughout .gov.

I'll take my Liberty, it's not yours to give.

Now this is cool. Hopefully

Now this is cool. Hopefully it highlights some interesting things.

To climb the mountain, you must believe you can.