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The US Supreme Court Site:
Better Never Than This Late
and This Bad

by Wendy R. Leibowitz

The Supreme Court of the United States recently unveiled its official Web site, at www.supremecourtus.gov. One would think that in waiting this long to put up a site, the Court would have used the time to learn from the many courts that preceded it, such as the Official Web Site of the Ninth Circuit, at www.ca9.uscourts.gov. It wouldn't take long--court sites are gathered at www.courts.net, and the best of the courts' sites, in the opinion of the lawyer, M. Sean Fosmire, who maintains the Courts.net site, are at www.courts.net/best.htm. He even offers a little critique of the sites. One would think that those designing the Supreme Court's site would do a little research into this matter.

One would be wrong. The Court's poor site illustrates how uneasy this bench is with public access to its work, and how hesitant it is to embrace new technology.

My biggest gripe with the Supreme Court site is that it publishes its decisions, and much of the information on its site, only in PDF format. While most people can read documents in the public document format, this display makes it more difficult to read or peruse a document--one must download the whole thing. PDF is the preferred format for those still thinking in the paper-based world, who are worried that people will--gasp--use the wrong page numbers. Page numbers, of course, are irrelevant on the Web. But I recognize that citations are still important in the real world, so why not post the documents in PDF and HTML? That's what some courts do. The Court is obviously terrified that someone is going to copy their decisions and change a few words.

This fear might be understandable if the Court's work were not readily available in HTML, or hypertext mark-up language, from other sites dedicated to the Court's work, such as Cornell's Legal Information Institute, at http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct. (Findlaw's Supreme Court resources are also impressive, at www.findlaw.com/casecode/supreme.html.) The refusal of the Court to publish its own work in an easily-readable format illustrates a longstanding distrust of the public. It also sets a poor example for other courts who are opening their doors on the Web.

Other countries' high court sites, such as Australia's, www.hcourt.gov.au, make their opinions available in HTML. Canada, relying on the University of Montreal, publishes its opinions in various formats--HTML, Text, Rich Text Format (RTF), and WordPerfect 6.1--, and in two languages, English and French, at www.lexum.umontreal.ca/csc-scc/en/index.html.

Geez Louise, the House of Lords (LORDS!) in Britain even publishes transcripts of its debates on its site, www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld/ldhansrd.htm. The US Supreme Court couldn't be bothered to publish the transcripts of its oral arguments. Ever.

Indeed, the Supreme Court site reminds you that Chief Justice Rehnquist threatened a lawsuit when tapes of oral arguments were made available to a wide audience. The Chief Justice, who still presides wearing stripes on his sleeves because he liked them on a judge in a Gilbert and Sullivan production, eventually surrendered. To access the Court's oral arguments (months after they are argued), see Northwestern University's site, at http://oyez.nwu.edu.

What's truly incomprehensible is that information on the US Supreme Court site intended for non-lawyers (the public), including basic instructions on how to attend a sitting of the Court, is also in PDF format. Why on earth wouldn't someone type this up in a readily-readable format for people?

Because it insists on PDF, the Court is compelled to add a commercial link to the Adobe Acrobat reader that allows a visitor to read the words.

I e-mailed the Webmaster, asking whether there were plans to make more information--any useful information--available in HTML, so you could just land on the site and (gasp) read it. Here's the reply:


GPO Access is a search and retrieve database. Use this URL to access Help. http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/help.html

You can click on Get Acrobat Reader and download free. You can also click on Configuring and using the Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Use this URL to access Judicial. http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/judicial.html.

Click on Supreme Court of the United States

You will see Judicial Branch Web Sites Hosted by GPO Access.

We do not support the Supreme Court site. I suggest you contact the Supreme Court.

Thank you for using GPO Access.

Myra Schumacher

Professor Bernard Hibbitts, who maintains his wonderful JURIST site, http://jurist.law.pitt.edu, from the University of Pittsburgh Law School, pointed out that InSite, an ordinarily excellent e-mail Web review service from Cornell, actually praises the site for using PDF: "In keeping with the elegant design of the site, many documents are available in PDF format only," exult the authors. "Some sections have not yet been implemented, such as the docketing calendar, but this does not distract from the fact that the web site for the Supreme Court of the United States is one of the most polished and useful court sites available today."

This is only true if you visit few other court sites. Virtually all of them are better--meaning more useful at providing information that Web site visitors need--than the US Supreme Court's. Perhaps things may improve in time--but only after a younger generation takes over that bench.


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