Supreme Court Revisionism

The New York Times reported recently:

The Supreme Court has been quietly revising its decisions years after they were issued, altering the law of the land without public notice.”

For example, this past April, Justice Scalia made a misstep in a dissent in a case involving the E.P.A. Under the heading “Plus Ça Change: E.P.A.’s Continuing Quest for Cost-Benefit Authority,” he criticized the EPA for seeking cost-benefit authority in a 2001 case. But as the New York Times noted, that “he got its position backward. Worse, he was the author of the majority opinion in the 2001 decision.”

After law professors pointed out the mistake, Justice Scalia quickly altered the opinion, revising the text and substituting the heading “Our Precedent.”

Justice Scalia, proponent of "originalism" except in the case of his own opinions

Justice Scalia, proponent of “originalism” except in the case of his own opinions

Now, there is a way to find out quickly and easily when revisions happen. David Zvenyach, General Counsel to the Council of the District of Columbia, recently launched @Scotus_servo, a Twitter account that alerts followers whenever a change is made to a Supreme Court opinion.

The process uses an application written in JavaScript that crawls through the “slip” opinions posted to the Supreme Court website. If the application, which performs a crawl every five minutes, detects a change, it notifies the automated Twitter account, which tweets out an alert. Shortly thereafter, Zvenyach sends out a manual tweet that calls attention to the change. Here is an example:

Screen Shot 2014-06-14 at 11.36.36 AM

Since Zvenyach launched his twitter account, Joshua Tauberer (@JoshData) came up with a way to highlight the changes and he tweets them out in a “before” and “after” format like this example:

Screen Shot 2014-06-14 at 11.39.36 AM

These changes should make interesting complications for legal researchers.

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