Tracking Changes to Supreme Court Opinions, One Word at a Time

Tracking Changes to Supreme Court Opinions, One Word at a Time

Using a simple piece of computer code, a Washington-based U.S. Supreme Court geek has found a way to track previously hard-to-discover changes in published court opinions.

David Zvenyach, general counsel to the District of Columbia’s city council, came up with the solution after reading a New York Times account by Adam Liptak of research by Harvard Law School professor Richard Lazarus into the “non-finality” of the opinions issued by the U.S. Supreme Court.

With some regularity, Lazarus revealed, the court changes the text of its opinions after publication to remedy typographical and other errors as well as substantive factual mistakes. But the court discloses the changes only to a group of legal publishers and refused to release “page changes” to the Times.

Lazarus urged the court to adopt several reforms to make the revision process more transparent to the public. “The Court can both make mistakes and admit mistakes without placing its institutional integrity at risk,” Lazarus wrote.

But in an instructive workaround, Zvenyach did not wait for the court to change its ways, instead using computer savvy to track changes, large and small. “I didn’t really think the court’s intervention was needed,” he said in an interview. “It’s not a complicated piece of code.”

Zvenyach’s method sweeps the court’s so-called slip opinions every five minutes to detect any new “etags” that would signal a new document has been substituted for an old one. Different software then is able to find and display both the pertinent pages—from before and after the changes—on a Twitter feed he created for this purpose called SCOTUS Servo. In a few weeks, the account has gained nearly 2,500 followers.

Checking that Twitter feed, one could learn that in the court’s June 16 decision in Argentina v. NML Capital, Ltd., the erroneous wording “an subsection” was corrected to “a subsection.”

More significantly, Zvenyach’s sweep found that the final sentence in Justice Elena Kagan’s June 9 opinion in Scialabba v. Cuellar de Osorio was changed an hour after it was issued on June 9.

The first version offered vague instructions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: “We therefore reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings.” The revision was more specific: “We therefore reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

More substantive corrections made news earlier in the term, and were easier to track because they were spotted online almost immediately. In EPA v. EME Homer City Generation on April 29, Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent misstated the court’s decision in a relevant precedent.

And in her dissent in Town of Greece v. Galloway, Justice Elena Kagan referred incorrectly to Newport, Rhode Island as the “home of the first community of American Jews.” After commentators pointed out that Jews had settled in New York earlier, the phrasing on Newport was changed to “one of the first communities.”

Zvenyach says his method was modeled in part after other sites that use similar techniques to update and shed light on court developments, such as FISA Court and Court Listener.

Asked if he could develop a tech workaround for camera coverage of the Supreme Court that would not require the justices to act, Zvenyach laughed. “I don’t think there’s a Web solution for that,” he said.

Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com. On Twitter: @Tonymauro.

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