Past Supreme Court Decisions: A Review of Four Websites
In my last blog post I discussed the LII Supreme Court Bulletin, a useful resource for keeping informed about the Supreme Court’s current docket. I’d now like to supplement that last blog post by shifting focus a bit. Rather than zoning in on upcoming Supreme Court cases, I’d like to now target past Supreme Court cases. The topic of this post, then, is: “Where can I find out about past Supreme Court cases?” Predictably, there are a plethora of websites that provide such information. This post will take a closer look at and compare and contrast four of these websites.
Website #1: Wikipedia
Frankly, if you’re unfamiliar with wikipedia, then I’d like to emphasize how impressed I am that you’re proficient enough with computers to have been able to navigate to this blog. Wikipedia is a very popular free encyclopedia project based on an openly editable model. This means that nearly anyone is able to edit the information (click here to learn about the editing process). This particular aspect of the website, which is often said to be both Wikipedia’s biggest strength and weakness, has spurred a good amount of debate as to whether or not the website is an accurate and reliable source of information. Although such an inquiry is outside the scope of this blog, I encourage interested readers to read one of my classmate’s blogs about this topic.
One notable advantage about searching for a Supreme Court case on this site is efficiency. Because of Wikipedia’s popularity and prominent digital footprint, a Wikipedia page (“wiki”) about a case is frequently the first result that pops up when one types the name of a case into a search engine. To illustrate, let’s say you want to know the holding in the case Bi-Metallic Investment Co. v. State Bd. of Equalization of Colorado (a notable Administrative Law decision delivered by Justice Holmes in 1915). In order to read the wiki on this case, one merely need to type the name of the case into google and voila: it’s the first result. Of course, I don’t see this advantage as all that significant (we’re talking about saving ourselves a couple of keystrokes here, …. internet research in general is pretty efficient in and of itself).
An advantage that I deem more relevant is the comprehensibility of Supreme Court case wikis. Because Wikipedia is written with a lay audience in mind, the opinion summaries are very intelligigble and often quite simplified. They tend to give the most important elements of the decision, without any of the superfluous dicta. Another nice feature is that a lot of the text on any given wiki will hyperlink to other wikis. For example, the wiki for Bi-Metallic Investment Co. v. State Bd. of Equalization of Colorado states that “[t]he Due Process clause of the Fourteenth amendment provides that the government may not deprive an individual of life, liberty, or property without notice and an opportunity to be heard.” (hyperlink in original).
There are a number of shortcomings with Wikipedia, however. For starters, because Wikipedia has such a broad focus, it only has the more significant Supreme Court decisions. Even when there are wikis on certain cases, one has to question not only the accuracy of the information, but the thoroughness. Because Supreme Court case wikis are fairly abbreviated and to the point, they often exclude pivotal dicta that may help make sense of the Court’s decision. Relatedly, many Supreme Court cases make important findings of fact or have particularly influential concurring or dissenting opinions. Such content is frequently omitted from wikis.
In light of the above, I’d suggest using Wikipedia to read up on a Supreme Court case when one wants to get a very basic framework for a very popular case. One should always keep in mind that wikis on Supreme Court cases are likely to contain essential, but incomplete, information.
Website #2: Oyez
The Oyez Project differs from Wikipedia in that its focus is narrowed specifically to Supreme Court cases. This specialized focus may provide some users with a sense of security or reliability (the rationale being that a website dedicated to one topic is likely to be more accurate with regard to that topic than a website without that specialized focus). Of course, people will certainly attach varying degrees of importance to this intangible. The reliability and authoritativeness of Oyez is buttressed by another really cool feature: a multimedia archive with complete audio recordings of all oral arguments dating back to October 1955. This feature is great because it enables users to know exactly what was argued before the Court and how the arguments were presented. Each case summary on Oyez also contains a breakdown of how each Justice on the Court voted.
Like Wikipedia, however, the Oyez Project omits many Supreme Court cases. While Wikipedia discriminates based on prominency, Oyez discriminates on account of recency (weeding out many older cases). It is also presumably written with a sophisticated audience in mind. The case descriptions may contain legal terminology foreign to a lay person. And unlike Wikipedia, Oyez does not have internal hyperlinks that help explain what different concepts and terms mean.
I see Oyez as an excellent reference for legal professionals who want a brief recitation of a case holding. The website is also the to-go-to source for anyone seeking a better appreciation for how the arguments were framed and presented to the Court at oral argument.
Website #3: SCOTUSblog
SCOTUSblog, like Oyez, focuses specifically on the U.S. Supreme Court. The website, which takes the form of a blog, reports on Supreme Court cases both before and after the decisions. In this way, this website can (and should) be perused for purposes beyond digesting decided cases. Indeed, in my opinion, its archive of Supreme Court cases is one of its weaker features. To begin, SCOTUSblog discriminates on the basis of date in the same way that Oyez does. Cases preceding the 2007 term are inaccessible on SCOTUSblog. And although SCOTUSblog provides brief summaries of the holdings for cases from the past four terms, it does not further break down the cases into comprehensible bites. Instead, the website merely provides a link to a PDF file of each unedited opinion. While this approach certainly addresses any qualms about authenticity, it does little to help users in understanding the significance of a case. On the other hand, the website does also provide links to the opinions of lower courts decisions. This feature (access to the full procedural posture) may assist an individual in understanding the build-up and evolution of a case.
I see this resource as most effective when one wants to read over an authentic, complete, and recent decision.
Website #4 – Justia
The final website that I’ll review in this blog entry is Justia. Although this website is not itself new, it is the one that I’m least familiar with (in fact, I really only first began playing around with it after learning about it in class on Tuesday). Justia, which itself links to various other Supreme Court and constitutional rights blogs, is an easy-to-use informative reference for Supreme Court decisions. To me, one of its best features is its usability. The website allows you to search for cases in three ways: (1) by name, (2) by decision date, and (3) by case citation. Although, in conformity with the other three websites, Justia lacks a complete record of all Supreme Court cases, I nevertheless find it to be the most complete (it contains a broad array of cases dating back as far as 1791). Justia then provides short summaries for all the cases as well as the full opinions (generally in PDF form). Although I haven’t yet had a chance to explore this site in great detail, as far as I’ve been able to tell it seems like an optimal reference for lay people and lawyers alike. Its features enable users to read full opinions or brief and comprehensive summaries. If only it had recordings of oral arguments it’d have the whole enchilada…