There are few institutions in modern America as untouched by technology as the U.S. Supreme Court. And that's why it was so striking to see, as our Robert Barnes details, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts devote the bulk of this year's progress report on the state of the federal judiciary to musings on what role technology plays in the life of the court.
There is, in fact, a nugget of newsy news in Roberts's "2014 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary": The Supreme Court will bypass the federal judiciary's somewhat troubled electronic case-filing system in favor of its own, expected to come in 2016. But the chief justice's accounting is perhaps most useful for what, with a bit of between-the-lines reading, it reveals about why, he admits, "the courts will often choose to be late to the harvest of American ingenuity."
Sure, the Supreme Court has to contend with the congressional appropriations process, but so do others in government. And it has considerable security concerns, but so do banks. What's distinctly Supreme Courtian is Roberts's answer to a question anyone investing in innovation must face: Who exactly are the users you're serving?
And the chief justice makes plain that the court's focus is on "innovations that, first and foremost, advance their primary goal of fairly and efficiently adjudicating cases through the application of law." One example Roberts seems to praise: the introduction of legal databases that make it easier for Supreme Court clerks to research cases. In other words, the Supreme Court sees its user base limited to the legal community directly invested in how the court decides individual cases, one after the other.
The thing is, many of the advances that have pushed on the court from the outside, from putting video cameras in the court to recording proceedings to posting court records more quickly on SupremeCourt.gov, are aimed at opening up the court's work to the wider world, both out of an eagerness to gain a deeper understanding of the court's hugely consequential judgments and out of a desire to increase the public's understanding of how the high court fits into American life.
That distinction makes Roberts's report a useful guide for understanding which technologies the court will soon embrace, and which ones you're not going to want to hold your breath over. Cameras in the Supreme Court likely fall into latter category.
All that said, Roberts is simply relying upon a different technological time-scale than those of us who upgrade to a new cellphone every few years. With that in mind, the court's not that behind the times.
"No one," writes the chief justice in a section on why some change is inevitable, "should be surprised that the same surge of creativity that pushed courts from quills to hot-metal type will inevitably propel them past laser printer and HTML files as new technologies continue to emerge."
Note his citation of "laser printers and HTML files" as technology of-the-moment. It adds the same cast to his judgments on tech as would apply to music advice from some who calls Coldplay "that hot new band."
If that sounds harsh, Roberts would likely be fine with it. New is soon old, he writes. In the late 1890s, he cites, the whiz-bang technology of the moment was pneumatic tubes. But by 1968, The Washington Post's own Supreme Court reporter was deriding the court's use of such compressed-air-powered tech to deliver its decisions to a waiting press corps as "perhaps the most primitive...in the entire communications industry."
See, argues Roberts, there's no use chasing after the cutting edge, because the cutting edge is always moving.
Though that, to those of us not Chief Justices of the United States, might suggest that a 75-year-stint for a piece of technology made up of air and tubes is a pretty good run.