Supreme Court Decisions Are Not as Final as You Think

A new study from Harvard Law professor Richard J. Lazarus has revealed that the Supreme Court Justices routinely make changes to Court opinions that extend beyond fixing typographical errors and spelling mistakes.  In fact, Lazarus asserts that the Justices “correct mistakes in majority and separate opinions relating to the arguments of the parties, record below, historical facts, relevant statutes and regulations, opinions of their colleagues, and Court precedent.  The Justices also, even more significantly, sometimes change their initial reasoning in support of their legal conclusions.”  This is major news, because while every Supreme Court opinion contains the formal notice that “this opinion is subject to formal revision” when it is first published, the public is generally not aware of this practice.  Even more concerning is the fact that the Justices rarely announce any changes that are made, and according to Lazarus, “deliberately make it hard for anyone to determine when changes are made.”

Exposing the changes
In response to this practice, David Zvenyach, a lawyer and coder, has created a tool that flags and publicizes changes made to Supreme Court opinions after their publication.  When Zvenyach’s code detects a change to slip opinions posted on the Supreme Court’s website it sends a message to the Twitter account @Scotus_servo, which tweets out an alert.  Zvenyach also tweets about any detected change.

You can read more about the clever piece of code that exposes hidden changes to Supreme Court opinions in this Gigaom article as well as read about the ramifications of changing language in Supreme Court opinions in the New York Times article Final Word on U.S. Law Isn’t: Supreme Court Keeps Editing.