After lagging behind other courts for years, the Supreme Court is finally catching up on a key technological feature that will be a boon to researchers, lawyers and analysts of all kinds. It's moving to adopt electronic filing.
The change will allow the public to access legal filings for all future cases — free of charge. Beginning Nov. 13, the court will require “parties who are represented by counsel” to upload digital copies of their paper submissions. Parties representing themselves will have their filings uploaded by the court's staff.
All those submissions will then be entered into an online docket for each case, and they will be accessible from the court's homepage.
The move brings the Supreme Court fully into the Internet age, and it fulfills a promise outlined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in 2014.
“While courts routinely consider evidence and issue decisions concerning the latest technological advances, they have proceeded cautiously when it comes to adopting new technologies in certain aspects of their own operations,” he said at the time.
By “as soon as 2016,” Roberts said, the court would offer an online system that can handle all types of filings, including petitions, motions and briefs.
Roberts's timing, it turns out, was not far off.
Virtually all federal courts are already on board with electronic submissions. As early as 2001, some federal court documents were available over the Internet through a system known as PACER, or the Public Access to Court Electronic Records. Even before the Internet, the public could get to filings electronically by using special terminals at libraries and other institutions.
PACER has its shortcomings. It charges users a fee of $0.10 per page, which can add up if you're going through hundreds or thousands of documents. Because federal court records are considered public domain, those charges can also be a waste of money for researchers unaware that documents for a case have already been downloaded by somebody else and made available for sharing. To circumvent this problem, independent researchers have built their own tool, RECAP, to save people money.
But the Supreme Court tool goes further, making all its filings free. For some, that's not just a step forward — it's a leapfrog ahead.