Social Education 66(1), pp.51-52
©2002 National Council for the Social Studies
Charles F. Williams
How can a person get a copy of a recent United States Supreme Court opinion, the briefs that were submitted to the Court, or a recordingat least a transcriptof the oral arguments?
Back in the early 1990sthat is, before the days of the World Wide Webthere was a simple answer: With great difficulty. A person could pay for access to a specialized legal database or subscribe to one of the Court reporting services, which, for a hefty fee, would send regular updates on the Courts work.
Of course, there were always the timely and reliable stories filed by the Supreme Court journalists whose job was to follow the Court (see the article by Charles Bierbauer on p. 63). And since its inception in the Warren Court era, the American Bar Association publication Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases has provided analyses of the issues and arguments in every case.1
But before the web, to read the full text of the Courts new opinions, a person had to visit a law library or sign up with an expensive commercial provider of legal information. Similarly, the parties briefs were generally available for public review only at the Supreme Court, at special federal document repositories around the country, and after unpredictable delays, through commercial services. To view oral arguments? Forget about it. A single company was authorized to produce the transcripts, which one had to pay to review. The other alternative was to travel to Washington, D.C. to wait in line on the Courts steps for an opportunity to observe a portion of an argument.
In fact, in 1993, when University of CaliforniaSan Diego professor Peter Irons released cassette copies of portions of the oral arguments in just a selected number of historical cases, he found he had to defy a National Archives rule in order to do so.2
The weband the Court itselfhas changed all that, which most people, including the justices, agree is a good thing. Although the issues before the Court are often unavoidably technical, the justices strive to write in plain English for a readership that extends beyond the legal community.
For many, however, this new period of Supreme Court access really dawned with the overwhelming public interest in Bush v. Gore.3 True, the World Wide Web had already quietly opened a window on the Courts work, with opinions becoming available free of charge on a number of websites. The Court had even launched its own website on April 17, 2000. And a tiny dotcom called Findlaw4 had already hit on the idea of regularly scanning and posting the Supreme Court briefs on its website for all to seefor free.5 (All of this took place with little fanfare.) With Bush v. Gore, however, Americans who suddenly found themselves listening to oral arguments on the radio learned that they could download the full audio files and read the full argument transcripts at the Supreme Courts official website. When the election decisions were handed down, every major news site linked to the full text opinions.
Teachers thus learned that they could gain access to all the source materials that go into a Supreme Court case, including the parties briefs, the oral argument transcripts, and the prior opinions and statutes that frame the issuesall for the price of an Internet connection. Now, instead of wondering whether Supreme Court materials are accessible and, if so, at what cost, the question is which free site will work best?
A number of first-rate websites are devoted to current issues and analysis of the Supreme Court. The following sites are particularly useful when looking for primary source documents and news.
The Official Supremes
Since its first cautious step into cyberspace in spring 2000, this site has made up for lost time by growing into a superb, timely, and well-designed source for all things Supreme. And if it doesnt have the specific documents, it almost certainly will explain where to find them.
The site includes the following:
The latest slip opinions that are released on the day that a case is decided;
The complete copies of the bound volumes of Supreme Court Reports, containing all of the Courts published opinions since the October 1991 term;
The briefing schedules, showing when briefs in pending cases are due to be filed with the Court and when they will be searchable on Findlaw (see website below);
The oral argument schedules, showing when each case is scheduled to be argued and when to look for the transcripts and recordings; and
Oral argument transcripts and recordings. These are posted several weeks after the arguments.
Most of these materials are in .pdf format, which takes some getting used to but makes for easy printing.
So whats not to like? The lack of a search engine that would quickly locate a specific case.
The Pioneering Supremes
Cornell University was among the first to recognize that providing free, easy access to Supreme Court opinions would be an important public service. This site is still always worth a look and includes a fast search engine that finds opinions by either the decision date or party name.6
Whats not to like? The various opinions are broken out separately for posting, so visitors must click on each concurrence and dissent separately. This has the benefit of letting users find (and remember) which specific justice is saying what, but its a bit cumbersome when printing out all the opinions in a case at once.
The Briefed Supremes
Dont let the long URL fool youthis may be the easiest site of all to navigate. Plus, its the only one to post the parties briefs for free downloading. The search engine is terrific: Information can be searched by party name, decision date, oral argument date, and even topic (e.g., criminal law).
Unfortunately, the screen presentation isnt as clean or as easy on the eyes as Cornel#146;s site is.
The Newsy Supremes
The JURIST site has undergone some major changes. Hosted by the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, the site offers ruthlessly updated links to everything said about the Supreme Court by anyone in the mainstream media. Thanks to JURIST, theres no need to scour The New York Times or CNN every day to see whether theres a Supreme Court story.
The Talking Supremes
Look beyond the pretty graphics at Northwestern Universitys Oyez Project and discover the dramatic sounds of all-star lawyering. Oyez (Middle English for listen up) provides an ever-growing number of argument recordings for leading constitutional cases, some of which are accompanied by transcripts, and all of which are linked to the Courts full-text opinions at Findlaw.7 Take a virtual tour of the Court, learn about the justices, and follow links to summaries of pending cases authored by the universitys journalism students.
Whats not to like? Reading the Courts opinion in a case is a bit faster on the Findlaw or Cornell site.
1. For subscription information, contact ABA/Division for Public Education, 541 N. Fairbanks Court, Mail Station 15.3, Chicago, IL 60611-3314; phone: 312-988-5735 or 5729; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Peter Ironss book May It Please the Court was first published in 1993 and contained live recordings and transcripts of Supreme Court oral arguments. He has released many new editions since then, including his most recent version, May It Please the Court: Courts, Kids, and the Constitution: Live Recordings and Transcripts of Sixteen Supreme Court Oral Arguments on the Constitutional Rights of Students and Teachers (September 2000). All of his publications are easily attainable at the local library or bookstore.
3. Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, (2000).
4. See lp.findlaw.com.
5. See guide.lp.findlaw.com/casecode/supreme.html.
6. This site also has a fascinating collection of international law materials listed by continent and country. See www.law.cornell.edu/world/.
7 If you like listening to the Oyez Projects Real Audio files over the Internet, then try The Supreme Courts Greatest Hits, the projects multimedia CD covering fifty leading constitutional cases. With the CD in your computer, you can listen to the full, unedited oral argument recordings, read a concise summary of the Courts opinion and the opinions themselves, and take advantage of a slick guide to the arguments highlights that lets you jump directly to the key questions and answers in every argument session. Order the CD online for $29.95 from the Oyez sites links.
Charles F. Williams is Editor, ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases.