Supreme Court Plans to Join 21st Century…in 2016, Maybe

Friday, January 02, 2015
Chief Justice John Roberts (photo: U.S. Supreme Court)

Time moves at a different pace inside the U.S. Supreme Court, where certain modern technological advances—such as cameras and uploading court documents—have long been shunned. But the court’s top man, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., announced this week that the Judicial Branch is going to finally start getting with the times in a big way—posting its court filings on its website.


The only catch, according to Roberts, is that it may not happen until 2016...or later.


Until that time, all documents will still have to be retrieved in person at the court because they only exist in paper format.


“Like other centuries-old institutions, courts may have practices that seem archaic and inefficient — and some are,” Roberts wrote. “But others rest on traditions that embody intangible wisdom. … Judges and court executives are understandably circumspect in introducing change to a court system that works well until they are satisfied that they are introducing change for the good. …The courts will always be prudent whenever it comes to embracing the ‘next big thing.’ ”


The Supreme Court’s cautious approach to joining the 21st century is partially driven by its concern for security, said the Chief Justice. “Foreign and domestic hackers, whose motives may range from fishing for secrets to discrediting the government or impairing court operations,” is something to guard against, he wrote.


The new online system will be developed over the course of this year and will cover all petitions, responses, briefs and other public documents filed with the court, according to The Washington Post. The change, described as “modest” by Post reporter Robert Barnes, will fall far short of what many legal and media observers of the court desire.


Many courts across the country have cameras providing remote coverage of trials. But the Supreme Court is still resisting this bold step. Reporters can get audio tapings of court sessions, but not on the same day they’re recorded. Those are only provided on Fridays of each week.


Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, couldn’t help but crack wise about the court’s modernization effort, likening the justices’ stubbornness to an alcoholic coming clean. “The first step to recovery is admitting there’s a problem,” he told the Post. But, he added with reference to the promised change, “this may be the very least the court could do to become more transparent.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Tech-Wary Supreme Court To Finally Join the Digital Age (by Robert Barnes, Washington Post)

Supreme Court, in Big Leap, Plans to Put Filings Online (by Adam Liptak, New York Times)

Supreme Court Enters 20th Century; 21st Will Have to Wait (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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