Clever piece of code exposes hidden changes to Supreme Court opinions

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 painstaking 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.

The process is fairly simple. As Zvenyach explained in a phone interview, it uses Node, an application written in JavaScript, to crawl the “slip” opinions posted to the Supreme Court website. If the application, which performs a crawl every five minutes, detects a change, it notifies the automated Twitter account, which tweets out an alert.

Shortly after, Zvenyach sends out a manual tweet that calls attention to the change — something he has already had to do, flagging a small change to a patent opinion this month:

In the short time since Zvenyach launched the tool, another coder has added a feature that highlights the changes, and likewise tweets them out. Here’s a screenshot:

SCOTUS_servo change

Given courts’ frequent misunderstanding of technology, I asked Zvenyach if there’s a risk that the Supreme Court might block his tool from crawling the decisions. He says that he checked the court website’s terms of service, and that he doesn’t anticipate a problem (nor should he, I would add, since the decisions are public domain documents).

An easy tool for accountability

The @Scotus_servo account is just one example of how a simple piece of code can improve judicial transparency. Another is @FISACourt, which inspired Zvenyach, and which crawls the docket of the country’s controversial spy court and alerts the public when there is a new development in important cases about government surveillance.

The tools appears to be so cheap to create and deliver such obvious benefits, it’s a wonder that courts and government websites don’t integrate them as a matter of course.

Instead, in the case of the Supreme Court, it appears that one 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. Here, from Zvenyach’s GitHub page, is his self-proclaimed mission:

WHEREAS, It is now well-documented that the Supreme Court of the United States makes changes to its opinions after the opinion is published; and

WHEREAS, Only “Four legal publishers are granted access to “change pages” that show all revisions. Those documents are not made public, and the court refused to provide copies to The New York Times”; and

WHEREAS, git makes it easy to identify when changes have been made;

RESOLVED, I shall apply a cron job to at least identify when the actual PDF has changed so everyone can see which documents have changed.