Supreme Court citations are falling apart as web links begin to change and disappear

Half of all the court's web citations have succumbed to link rot

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Supreme Court opinions have been falling apart — or at least, their citations have. A study led by Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain found that half of all web links that the Supreme Court have ever included in an opinion have now changed from their original state or disappeared entirely. It's a potentially troubling trend for legal scholars who rely on every detail provided in order to understand the court's opinions — and as you'd expect, the study found that the issue has only been getting worse over time. In one example, pointed out by The New York Times, a website cited by Justice Alito has been intentionally altered with a message for future visitors reading, "Aren't you glad you didn't cite to this webpage ... If you had, like Justice Alito did, the original content would have long since disappeared."

"The most egregious examples ... refer back to dead links on the Supreme Court website."

A separate study, published by two John Marshall Law School librarians in the Yale Journal of Law & Technology earlier this year, found that the Supreme Court itself is often to blame. "The most egregious examples of dead links in Supreme Court opinions refer back to dead links on the Supreme Court website," the paper reads. It notes that in one majority opinion, the court links out to a video that was in part a focal point of the case, writing that "we are happy to allow the videotape to speak for itself." Since that 2007 opinion, the video has disappeared. "In these instances the linked information was at the heart of disputes between the majority and the dissent," the paper reads. "Having working links in opinions is essential."

The problem has become colloquially known as "link rot," pegging it almost as a natural process that unavoidably occurs over time. Though there are a number of services that will collect websites' histories — most notably archive.org — none can ensure that they'll save the right page at the right moment. The paper from Harvard Law School suggests that the court should begin making permanent copies of cited webpages, thus allowing future scholars to see the exact resource that the court was referring to.

Some courts have already begun taken action against link rot. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has been collecting webpages referred to in its own opinions since 2008. The entire archive — which it charmingly refers to as "webcites" — is open to and searchable by the public, allowing easy access for anyone looking to confirm what's meant to be at an address linked to by the court. And at Harvard, Zittrain is at work on a free service called Perma.cc, which through a partnership with over two dozen libraries, law schools, and some web companies, will allow anyone to permanently archive a page of their choice — at least, so long as Perma.cc is around to fetch it.

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