Post-decision revisions of Supreme Court opinions

May 25

The Supreme Court quietly revised errors in recent opinions by Justice Scalia and Justice Kagan.  This may happen more than people realize.  In today’s NYTAdam Liptak reports on the practice of revising Supreme Court opinions, sometimes months or even years after initial release.  Drawing on the research of Harvard’s Richard Lazarus, Liptak notes that some revisions go beyond minor factual tweaks.

most changes are neither prompt nor publicized, and the court’s secretive editing process has led judges and law professors astray, causing them to rely on passages that were later scrubbed from the official record. The widening public access to online versions of the court’s decisions, some of which do not reflect the final wording, has made the longstanding problem more pronounced.

Unannounced changes have not reversed decisions outright, but they have withdrawn conclusions on significant points of law. They have also retreated from descriptions of common ground with other justices, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor did in a major gay rights case. . . .

The court does warn readers that early versions of its decisions, available at the courthouse and on the court’s website, are works in progress. A small-print notice says that “this opinion is subject to formal revision before publication,” and it asks readers to notify the court of “any typographical or other formal errors.”

But aside from announcing the abstract proposition that revisions are possible, the court almost never notes when a change has been made, much less specifies what it was. And many changes do not seem merely typographical or formal.

It’s understandable that Supreme Court opinions are subject to revision.  Mistakes will happen, and they should be corrected.  But the Court should also be more open and transparent about the changes that are made.

 

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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