It’s 5 p.m. on July 30, 2014. Do you know where your Supreme Court justices are? Victoria Kwan and Jay Pinho probably do.
Put together a law school grad with a passion for the Supreme Court and a budding techie with an insatiable appetite for public policy and the result is SCOTUS Map, an interactive guide to where sitting and retired justices have speaking engagements this summer and fall.
The map, launched this month, may not seem a huge journalistic breakthrough, but to a journalist or anyone else who has tried, generally unsuccessfully, to secure access to the justices’ public speaking schedules, its value as a timesaving research tool is evident.
As Kwan points out, the Supreme Court’s own website, which links to the justices’ speeches, lists just three for 2014 and four in 2013—all by either Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg or retired Justice John Paul Stevens. SCOTUS Map lists 28 speeches and appearances through October 1 for eight of the nine justices.
The Brooklyn duo met in 2008 while on human rights scholarships. Kwan, a Canadian, graduated from Columbia Law School in 2011. Pinho graduated in 2013 from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Before that, he studied international security at L’Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris.
After law school, Kwan clerked for a state court trial judge in Anchorage “because I wasn’t really sure what kind of law to get into or whether to be a litigator.” Her student visa expired, so she took a break from working in the States. During her break, she said, she wrote about the Supreme Court and posted recaps of oral arguments, opinions and the justices’ appearances on Pinho’s blog, The First Casualty (jaypinho.com).
“I’ve been really fascinated with the Supreme Court even before I attended law school,” she said. “I found there was no one site dedicated to tracking the justices’ outside engagements. I thought that was really a big missed opportunity.”
What the justices say about the Constitution and political process, how they perceive their own role in society and what the public thinks of them offer important insights into the court that the public should share, Kwan said.
In March, Kwan watched a university panel discussion on openness and the Supreme Court. “They discussed a long list of ways the court is not transparent,” she said. “Once I realized that other legal analysts and court watchers shared my frustration, I wanted to create a tool.”
Enter Pinho, who now works at Oracle Corp. “I’m not a huge legal nerd,” he said. “For me, it was a technology project, and I really enjoy it.” Pinho took Kwan’s research and created the map.
He recommends viewing the map on a desktop computer for best results; tablets and mobile phones tend to squeeze the dimensions. “A lot of people are coming through on their mobiles, but it doesn’t actually look good on mobiles. I’m working to get it looking good.”
The map includes details about each event, the venue and registration information; they have plans to include post-event recaps. A right-hand sidebar lists all events, both past and future, in chronological order. Kwan and Pinho will update SCOTUS Map continually, and plan to create new iterations for each successive court term (and recess).
Kwan has no magic way of unearthing the justices’ speaking engagements. “A lot of it is just good old-fashioned googling,” she said. “I don’t have any connections at the court’s public information office or the ABA or law schools. I set up Google News Alert for each justice and get emails. I check one in the morning and one at night for new events. I also search the justices’ names on Twitter and Facebook. I can find tweets or recaps from people who attended or are in middle of attending some events. It’s probably as complete as I can get it right now.”
Kwan and Pinho are not looking for sightings of justices at bookstores or supermarkets.
“We’re not interested in becoming a TMZ [the celebrity news site at TMZ.com] or asking for tweets if you see Justice Breyer crashing his bike,” Kwan said. “We try to really focus on events that are public or speeches to bars or universities. We feel those events or what the justices would say are of interest to the general public.”
Since the map went up, they said, a “good number” of legal journalists, practicing attorneys and even high school government teachers have visited the site.
And Kwan and Pinho are not done yet.
“We are working on a comprehensive database of Supreme Court oral argument transcripts,” Pinho said. “We will make it searchable as far back as we can. Right now, we have them back to 1992. It’s not up yet. It’s a little way out.”
The key, Kwan said, is that the database will be public, free and searchable.
All of this is time-consuming, Kwan said, but she has the time as she continues to look for her place either in the law or in legal journalism. And as for Pinho, “For me, it’s really just a fun project.”
Contact Marcia Coyle at firstname.lastname@example.org.