Years of Supreme Court Opinions on Shaky Ground as Critical Web Links Vanish

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court has done a poor job of maintaining web links in its opinions, leaving legal scholars and others unable to fully understand the rationale behind rulings.


A new study conducted by Professor Jonathan Zittrain and law student Kendra Albert—both of Harvard—says nearly half of the hyperlinks in Supreme Court decisions (49%) no longer work.


What this means is that footnotes and citations become lost, making them unavailable to legal professionals.


“It is disturbing that even at the Supreme Court, where creating and citing precedent is of the utmost importance, citations often fail to point the researcher to the authority on which the court based its decision,” Raizel Liebler and June Liebert, librarians at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, wrote in a different study on the subject (“Something Rotten in the State of Legal Citation,” published in The Yale Journal of Law and Technology), according to The New York Times.


Prior to the Internet age, sources cited in support of the justices’ arguments and opinions were usually books, which could always be found and referred to. But since 1996, there have been 555 instances in which the Supreme Court justices cited materials only found on the Internet. But over a relatively short amount of time, the hyperlinks simply stop working.


The high court also has struggled to maintain key links on its own website, many of which have expired. For instance, after ruling in a 2007 case over whether police used excessive force by ramming a suspect’s car, the justices posted a link to the video showing the chase. Justice Antonin Scalia called the footage “the scariest chase I ever saw since The French Connection.” But, today, no one can judge for themselves because the link is broken.


“The fact that the Supreme Court itself has links to its own web site that no longer function shows the depth of the link rot problem,” Liebler and Liebert wrote.


The Supreme Court has taken some steps to address the problem, like noting the date each site was last visited and keeping a hard copy of materials on file.


But Liebert told the Times that this amounted to “a half measure to put a piece of paper in a court file….This is the Supreme Court, and it’s their responsibility to make these things available.”


Harvard’s Zittrain and Albert are currently at work on a web site, (operated by a consortium of law libraries), which will allow transient data to be permanently saved on the web. It was designed for legal scholarship, but they believe it would work just as well for the Supreme Court.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

In Supreme Court Opinions, Web Links to Nowhere (by Adam Liptak, New York Times)

Scoping and Addressing the Problem of “Link Rot” (by Jonathon Zittrain, Future of the Internet and How to Stop It)

Scoping and Addressing the Problem of Link and Reference Rot in Legal Citations (by Jonathon Zittrain, Kendra Albert and Lawrence Lessig, Social Science Research Network)


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