Chief Justice Roberts Promises Greater Access to Court Filings

By Tony Mauro, Legal Times, @Tonymauro 


The U.S. Supreme Court is developing an electronic filing system that will make all case filings available to the public online, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. announced in his annual year-end report issued Wednesday.

Roberts said the new system “may be operational as soon as 2016,” even as a “next generation” case management and electronic case filing system is under development for lower federal courts.

Advances in electronic filing may seem mundane compared to “vivid gaming technologies that entice adolescents and the young-at-heart,” Roberts said. But he asserted they are “vitally important to the cause of justice because [they] can make the courts more accessible, and more affordable, to a diverse body of litigants, drawn from every corner of society, who often enter the courthouse reluctantly, apprehensively, and only as a last resort.”

The Supreme Court system will still require paper as well as electronic submissions, at least in the beginning, and pro se petitioners will be allowed to use paper only. Their filings will be scanned and posted by Supreme Court personnel. The court’s current web site  reports docket information, but posts no briefs or other filings, leaving that task to the American Bar Association and other online sites.

The revamped electronic filing system for lower federal courts will make logging in easier and will let interested parties sign up for automatic calendaring notices, Roberts said.

The chief justice, responding to increasing calls for greater transparency of the judicial branch, in effect asked the public to be patient with an institution that is—and, in his view, should be—slow to embrace technological change.

“The courts will often choose to be late to the harvest of American ingenuity,” Roberts said, in his most detailed explanation of the judiciary’s thinking on transparency issues. He made no mention of the long-running debate over camera access to the federal courts.

Because of the judiciary’s limited constitutional role as “neutral arbiters of concrete disputes,” Roberts said the federal courts place their focus on measures that will advance the goal of “fairly and efficiently adjudicating cases.” Use of new information technology must always be viewed through that lens, Roberts wrote. Any innovations must work for the entire public, he said, “from the most tech-savvy to the most tech-intimidated,” not just lawyers or the press.

The chief justice also cited “important security concerns” that require some otherwise public documents to be shielded from view to protect witnesses in criminal cases, and sensitive information in bankruptcy, malpractice, discrimination and patent cases.

Roberts’ report drew criticism from Fix the Court, a group launched in 2014 to press the Supreme Court on issues of accountability. “Chief Justice Roberts pays lip service to the idea that transparency is critical, but does not signal a willingness to make the court truly transparent,” executive director Gabe Roth said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a written statement Wednesday evening that “the federal courts have made little progress in providing greater access to its public proceedings.” Leahy said:

I agree with the Chief Justice that the judiciary must continue to do more to employ technology so that Americans have access to their courts. Not mentioned in his report, however, is the failure of the Supreme Court to allow even old technology, like photographs of the Supreme Court in session or live streaming of its oral arguments online.

The report issued Wednesday was the tenth for Roberts, who became chief justice in 2005. The tradition of issuing annual reports on the federal judiciary began with the late chief justice Warren Burger in 1970.

Many perennial issues that Roberts has touched on in the past—including judicial pay raises and budget needs—have receded in 2014. Roberts made no direct mention of them.

To support his argument that courts should move slowly on technological change, Roberts told the story of the court adopting a new method of releasing its opinions when its new court building opened in 1935. Pneumatic tubes were installed in the courtroom to allow reporters sitting there to deliver opinions quickly to waiting colleagues a floor below. But even then the court was behind the times, Roberts said, noting that pneumatic technology was available in the late 1800s.

Roberts also pointed out that the court’s architect, Cass Gilbert, incorporated the slow-moving tortoise into several aspects of the building’s design. A tortoise and hare are featured at the edges of the court’s east pediment, Roberts said.

“Perhaps to remind us of which animal won that famous race,” Roberts added, “Cass Gilbert placed at the bases of the court’s exterior lampposts sturdy bronze tortoises, symbolizing the judiciary’s commitment to constant but deliberate progress in the cause of justice.”

In an appendix to the report, statistics on the federal judiciary’s workload show that filings decreased in 2014 in appeals and bankruptcy courts as well as at the Supreme Court.

District court filings grew less than one percent to 376,536 compared to the year before, and appeals courts cases fell three percent to 54,988. At the Supreme Court, 7,376 cases were filed last term, a decrease of 1.77 percent.

Read more:

Leave a Comment: