Following up on yesterday’s post about “ex parte blogging,” i.e. the possibility that the Supreme Court might see a newspaper editorial, article or blog post about a pending case, let’s consider the supposed worst-case scenario, in which a Justice sees an editorial, article or blog post which has an effect on their interpretation of the case.
The Student Note that started the discussion at Balkinzation and Prawfsblog based its analysis on the Kennedy v. Louisiana fiasco, in which a military-justice blogger revealed a significant error in the Supreme Court’s opinion, resulting in new briefing and a modification to the opinion.
Kennedy, however, does not show the danger lurking in “ex parte blogging,” but rather exactly the opposite: Kennedy shows the danger in relying upon nine people (and their typically fresh-out-of-law-school staff of four clerks each) to set legal policy for the entire country based upon two merits briefs of 15,000 words each and two reply briefs of 7,500 words each. More words are spilled on the Wikipedia page listing the people in line to succeed to the British throne.
The re-hearing and re-writing of the Kennedy opinion was a good thing; we want the Supreme Court’s opinions to be based on accurate facts and solid legal reasoning.
We also want those opinions to be as clear as possible; consider Washington v. Davis, the 2006 case in which the Supreme Court laid down an “objective and quite workable” rule that was, quite literally, interpreted differently in every state in the union.
Why wait until the damage has been done — why not invite public comment before the opinions become law?
That’s what the other two branches of the federal government do. The United States Congress debates bills for weeks, sometime months, prior to passage, all of which you can see on the Library of Congress’ Thomas service, or on the non-profit OpenCongress.org. The Executive Branch similarly posts each and every regulatory change to Regulations.gov for public review and comment prior to promulgating the regulations.
Just how powerful is the public comment process?
Consider epidemiology. As Jennifer Gardy, the co-head of British Columbia Centre for Disease Control explains in this fascinating talk (via), when the SARS coronavirus pandemic began in 2003, it took 19 days just to sequence the virus’s genome. This year, after the H1N1/09 influence was declared a pandemic, by the 19th day dozens of virus genomes had been sequenced, the origin and spread of the virus had been established, and a vaccine was already in the works. (Read more from Gardy here; see late-breaking H1N1 research in progress at the Public Library of Science’s Currents.)
Indeed, open access / public commenting is how most of academia functions these days. Draft social science and law journal articles are posted on SSRN prior to publication. Draft papers on physics, mathematics, and other complex quantitative papers are posted on arXiv.org.
It’s hard to think of any field of government or scholarship today in which work not subject to public scrutiny is considered worthy of use by others; in cryptography, for example, any encryption method which doesn’t make its source code available for public scrutiny, like even the government’s own encryption standard is available, is presumed worthless.
Individual collegiate evaluation worked for Henry Oldenburg when he was peer-reviewing the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society back in 1665. It doesn’t work so well when nine Justices are supposed to decide cases of national importance involving hundreds of thousands of pages of briefs, precedent, statutes, regulations, and appellate records at a rate of one opinion issued every four or five days, every word of which will be pondered, analyzed, scrutinized, and, unfortunately, misinterpreted by courts every day.