Using Technology to Improve Transparency in the Courts

Did you know the U.S. Supreme Court often changes the language of their decisions without telling anyone? Now, there’s a clever piece of code to notify people of those changes when they happen.

Those changes in the language often say something entirely different than the original decisions. That can be a problem for lawyers, scholars and journalists. 

GigaOm says David Zvenyach, who is the general counsel to the Council of the District of Columbia, developed a bit of code that constantly scans Supreme Court decisions looking for those changes. When it finds one, it tweets it out to the @Scotus_servo Twitter account.

The process is fairly simple. As Zvenyach explained in a phone interview, it uses Node, an application written in JavaScript, to crawl 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 after, Zvenyach sends out a manual tweet that calls attention to the change.

The @Scotus_servo account is just one example of how a simple piece of code can improve judicial transparency. Another is @FISACourt, which inspired Zvenyach, and which crawls the docket of the country’s controversial spy court and alerts the public when there is a new development in important cases about government surveillance.

The tools appears to be so cheap to create and deliver such obvious benefits, it’s a wonder that courts and government websites don’t integrate them as a matter of course.