In an era of instantaneous access to everything, one system that's managed to lag well behind is online court documents. Electronic filing systems have become the norm in lower courts, but are still in the midst of being overhauled to make accessing documents feel like like you're stuck in the 1990s. Then there's the Supreme Court, which still relies on paper filings, which need to be scanned and distributed by others like the Scotusblog for public consumption. That will change sometime in 2016, Chief Justice John Roberts said today. Writing in a year-end report on the Federal Judiciary, Roberts said the court was developing its own electronic filing system to help it escape the clutches of paper, and freely host major documents for the public to see — at least eventually.
"Initially, the official filing of documents will continue to be on paper for all parties in all cases, with the electronic submission an additional requirement for parties represented by attorneys," Roberts wrote. "Once the system has operated effectively for some time and the Supreme Court Bar has become well acquainted with it, the Court expects that electronic filing will be the official means for all parties represented by counsel, but paper filings will still be required."
"The courts cannot decide to serve only the most technically-capable or well-equipped segments of the public."
Why not jettison paper altogether? Roberts says the goal is to be as diplomatic as possible given the amount of access some people may or may not have, and that the court doesn't want to add potential barriers to people who aren't tech savvy.
"Unlike commercial enterprises, the courts cannot decide to serve only the most technically-capable or well-equipped segments of the public," Roberts wrote. "Indeed, the courts must remain open for those who do not have access to personal computers and need to file in paper, rather than electronic, form."
The annual review, which was spotted by The New York Times, makes no mention of any other technological endeavors, including opening up the court to cameras. That's long been a heated issue, with efforts to make footage of Supreme Court arguments available to the public, with the court arguing that it could change the dynamic of how it comes to decisions.
Roberts was keen to note that the Court has not historically been speedy about embracing new technology, a track record that includes the use of pneumatic tubes to deliver paperwork from office to office. In fact, it took the court 42 years to implement such a system after hearing about it in an 1893 article in The Washington Post.
"The courts will often choose to be late to the harvest of American ingenuity," he said. "While courts routinely consider evidence and issue decisions concerning the latest technological advances, they have proceeded cautiously when it comes to adopting new technologies in certain aspects of their own operations."