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The U.S. Supreme Court debuted its first Web site in April, several years after the other two branches of the federal government had put up their sites. The long-overdue site — a joint effort of the court and the Government Printing Office — is a work in progress. The site, at www.supremecourtus.gov, has the opinions for the current term, often within 30 minutes of the opinions’ being released, and calendars for arguments and hearings. Attorneys will find it a convenient reference for rules, bar admission forms and instructions. Students and the public can learn about court traditions, caseload and biographies. The site also displays excellent photographs of the Supreme Court and the two prior chambers. The public was clearly waiting for the site. In its first 13 days of operation, the site received 3 million hits and more than 650,000 page views, according to Cathy Arberg, a court spokeswoman. This is more traffic than the court’s dial-up bulletin board has received since it was created in 1996. The Web site is designed to replace the bulletin board, but the court will continue to operate two other electronic services: CARS and Hermes. Hermes is a subscription-based electronic service delivered to legal publishers, news organizations, educational institutions and government agencies. It will continue to be the fastest way to receive opinions. CARS, the Clerk’s Automated Response System, is a telephone system that provides case status reports. The court is clearly trying to move into the age of electronic information, but the present site should be better than it is. The site’s biggest failing probably is the extensive use of Adobe Acrobat files rather than standard HTML files. Files in Acrobat format look nearly identical to the original word-processing document, but they are not nearly as versatile as a document formatted in HTML, the language of the Web. Most significantly, you need additional software, available at www.adobe.com, to view Acrobat files. Even if you have the software, most people are not familiar with the special command bar that allows you to navigate an Acrobat document from within a Web browser. Most search engines also cannot or do not index Acrobat files. The Supreme Court Web site’s own search engine does search these files, but it is hard to find and confusing to use. The site does not make it easy for the general public or even lawyers without much Supreme Court experience to find what they are looking for. When you click on “Opinions,” you get a somewhat bewildering choice of selections. There is no indication of where to find opinions issued that day, or where to find the most frequently requested opinions. These are all problems common to the early versions of a Web site. It’s as if the designers were not sure what documents and information would be most valuable, so they didn’t highlight or emphasize anything. Despite these limitations, the site has become the court’s most successful way to communicate with the public in a matter of weeks. But it could be even more popular. As of May 24, the popular search engine Altavista reports that only 32 other sites link to the Supreme Court site. Another search engine, Hotbot, reports 419 links. By comparison, there are more than 160,000 links to the White House’s site, at www.whitehouse.gov. Even whitehouse.com, an adult site, is linked from more than 1,100 pages. This is not an academic point. Search engines often rank results of searches based on how many sites link to a particular Web page. Accordingly, searches for “US Supreme Court” or “Supreme Court” on the popular search engine sites often do not even list the official site. Other than to issue a news release, the Supreme Court has apparently not done much yet to publicize the site, although it is planning to register with other search engines. Creating Web sites in agencies with tight budgets is always hard, especially when time, personnel and funds have to be taken from other projects or traditional services. The Web, however, is clearly the medium of choice for quickly communicating text documents to the world, and it should be — and is — receiving more attention. The Supreme Court is already working on improvements to the site, such as pop-up menus to aid navigation. Opinions also should be posted in HTML format and easy to search both from within the site and through the major search engines. The court is to be applauded for taking a big step for a tradition-bound institution, but it should consider offering more than simply an archival site. U.S. Supreme Court opinions are some of the most important documents in the world. They should be immediately available to everyone, not just to subscribers of legal publishers or unofficial sources, such as Cornell Legal Information Institute. What better place to house the primary documents of the Supreme Court than the court’s own Web site? Mark Pruner is the president of Web Counsel, an interactive marketing agency for the legal community in Stamford, Conn., at www.webcounsel.com. Please e-mail comments and suggested topics to [email protected]

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