Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said Wednesday that the Supreme Court is working on a modest initiative to provide greater transparency by making all documents filed with the court available online.
In his “2014 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary,” Roberts said the new online system would offer all petitions, responses, briefs and other public documents filed with the court and said it “may be operational as soon as 2016.” Paper copies of the documents are available to the public at the court, but are not retrievable on the court’s Web site, www.supremecourt.gov.
But Roberts referred only obliquely to other calls for more transparency — such as televised oral arguments or same-day audio of the court’s sessions — and made no apologies for what he described as the court’s tortoise-like implementation of modern technology.
“Like other centuries-old institutions, courts may have practices that seem archaic and inefficient — and some are,” Roberts wrote. “But others rest on traditions that embody intangible wisdom.” He added, “Judges and court executives are understandably circumspect in introducing change to a court system that works well until they are satisfied that they are introducing change for the good.”
“In his year-end report, Chief Justice Roberts rightly promotes how the courts have embraced new technology,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said in a release. “Unfortunately, though, the courts have yet to embrace the one technology that the founders would likely have advocated for-cameras in the courtroom.”
Gabe Roth, executive director of a group called Fix the Court that is critical of the court’s transparency policies, said Roberts’ gesture was positive if underwhelming.
“The first step to recovery is admitting there’s a problem,” Roth said. But he added, “this may be the very least the court could do to become more transparent.”
First on his group’s wish list is allowing cameras into the courtroom, something that the justices have denied. Critics would also like to have audio available immediately from oral arguments; tapes of the sessions are made available on Fridays of the week the arguments are held. (Same-day transcripts of the arguments are posted on the court’s Web site.)
Additionally, the justices do not post their financial disclosures online or have a system for publicizing their public speaking engagements. And it is up to the individual justice to control access.
For instance, a recent joint appearance by Justices Antonin Scalia and Elena Kagan at the University of Mississippi law school was open to coverage by reporters in Oxford, but Scalia said it could not be recorded, televised or made available by webcast.
Roberts did not address such issues in his report. But he noted that justices and judges “understandably focus on those innovations that, first and foremost, advance their primary goal of fairly and efficiently adjudicating cases through the application of law.”
He noted that the court’s east pediment features, among the images of historic lawgivers, the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Architect Cass Gilbert paid tribute to the winner of the race by placing large bronze turtles at the bases of the court’s exterior lamposts, Roberts wrote.
Similarly, he said, that even though The Washington Post declared the dawn of the “pneumatic age” in 1893, it was not until the Supreme Court’s building debuted in 1935 that the compressed-air system of pneumatic tubes was embraced as a way to ferry the court’s opinions to waiting reporters a floor below the courtroom.
Similarly, Roberts said the federal judiciary has benefited from online systems already in use, but must proceed cautiously to protect confidentiality in some cases and to make sure the system is secure.
Courts must be on guard against “foreign and domestic hackers, whose motives may range from fishing for secrets to discrediting the government or impairing court operations,” he wrote.
Many of the documents Roberts mentioned are available online through profit-making organizations such as Lexis Nexis. The American Bar Association maintains a Web site that contains briefs filed in the cases the court has chosen to accept.
And for many, the Web site Scotusblog.com, founded by Washington lawyer and Supreme Court practitioner Thomas G. Goldstein, is the go-to place to read documents filed with the court.
Goldstein said a staffer is charged with contacting attorneys who file petitions and briefs with the court to try to get digital versions that the Web site can offer to readers.
Such documents are of great interest to those who come to Scotusblog, Goldstein said. He said it “would be a great development” for the court to do what Roberts outlined and require attorneys to file electronic versions of their pleas to the court.