Rethinking the Supreme Court’s Website

One of the odd things about the website for the U.S. Supreme Court is that it’s not the place to go to get briefs, new opinions, and oral argument audio of the Court’s own cases. [See update velow.]

If you’re one of the many Supreme Court geeks that needs to read the opinions as soon as possible after they are handed down, you visit SCOTUSblog, as it usually posts the opinions a few minutes before everyone else. If you want older opinions free off the web, you probably google the case and end up at Findlaw or the Cornell site. If you want to read the briefs in pending cases, you might visit the ABA’s site or SCOTUSwiki. And if you want to hear oral argument audio when they are released, you go to Oyez.org.

I love these sites. They’re terrific. But isn’t it sort of weird that these sites, rather than the Supreme Court’s own website, are the primary source for information about the Supreme Court’s pending and recently-decided cases? Perhaps the private sector can do a better job at such things than the government can. Or perhaps the thinking is that it’s better for the taxpayer to let a private firm (for sites like SCOTUSblog) or a non-profit (for sites like Oyez) provide the bandwidth. Perhaps it’s just too much trouble to maintain such a site for other reasons. Perhaps — I really don’t know.

Still, it strikes me as sort of a surprising that the Supreme Court’s own website isn’t the primary source of publicly available information about the Court’s cases. It posts the transcripts first, which is very useful, and it has all the docket pages publicly available, both of which are great. But I would think it a good idea for the Court to remake its website to be the first place new opinions are made available; the first place filed briefs are available online; and the first place oral argument audios are posted.

I should add that I don’t favor a remaking of the Supreme Court’s website along the lines of that proposed by the Sunlight Foundation a few months ago. The Sunlight Foundation proposed a new Supreme Court website designed to maximize traffic and seem “newsy” without first asking whether a Supreme Court website should try to maximize traffic and seem “newsy.” (In my view, it shouldn’t.) My point is just that there are a lot of people trying to get briefs and fresh opinions off the web, and it would seem to make sense for the Supreme Court’s own website to be the place for that sort of thing.

Why does it matter? Maybe it doesn’t. If you know the best places to find these items, it doesn’t matter very much at all. But I suspect there are folks who don’t know where to find them who would benefit from the one-stop shopping at the obvious place — the Court’s own website.

UPDATE: Soon after posting this, I more carefully read the Sunlight Foundation page linked to above that may explain the problem: The Supreme Court site is presently hosted by the Government Printing Office, not the staff at the Supreme Court itself. It seems that the Court has sought funding to take over hosting of the site, which I suspect would lead to major improvements.