SCOTUS_Servo reveals hidden edits to Supreme Court decisions.

Coder Builds Tool To Tweet Hidden Supreme Court Edits

Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder via Flickr. Twitter logo via the company’s website.

The Supreme Court Justices are allowed to secretly alter their opinions after they’re submitted – so an enterprising coder made SCOTUS_Servo, a tool to publicize those changes.

A recent study (pdf) by a Harvard law professor revealed that even after a Supreme Court decisions has been submitted, Justices can still make changes to their opinions, not just editing errors but sometimes making substantial alterations to their reasoning.

As noted by the New York Times in its coverage of the study:

“The court does warn readers that early versions of its decisions, available at the courthouse and on the court’s website, are works in progress. A small-print notice says that ‘this opinion is subject to formal revision before publication,’ and it asks readers to notify the court of ‘any typographical or other formal errors.’

But aside from announcing the abstract proposition that revisions are possible, the court almost never notes when a change has been made, much less specifies what it was. And many changes do not seem merely typographical or formal.”

After reading the article, General Counsel to the Council of D.C. (and hobby coder) David Zvenyach decided to do something about it.

By using the JavaScript application Node, he built a tool that crawls the “slip opinions” posted as PDFs on the Supreme Court website and sends out a Twitter alert on the account @SCOTUS_servo if any changes have been made.

Shortly after the automatic alert, Zvenyach will manually tweet out what the exact correction was (another coders,  Joshua Tauberer, added the image comparison feature):


The PDFs can also be found on Zvenyach’s GitHub.

SCOTUS_Servo, which has only existed for about two weeks, has already reported on several post-decision changes that would otherwise have languished in silence.

In one decision, for instance,  this sentence was edited: “We therefore reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings” by adding the phrase “consistent with this opinion” at the end, which would seem to tie future deliberations to this decision.

In an interview with Gigaom, Zvenyach said SCOTUS_Servo is consistent with the Supreme Court site’s terms of service, and does not expect the court to prevent it from revealing its previously secret edits.

Edit: The lead has been changed to replace the word “verdict” with “decision.”

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Ole Skaar