Courts & Crime

Supreme Court to adopt ‘new’ technology, at a tortoise’s pace

Supreme Court
Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will tiptoe further into the 21st century with the long-awaited inauguration of electronic case filing “as soon as” 2016, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. reported Wednesday.

Electronic case filing means members of the public will be able to quickly access Supreme Court documents, just as they have long been able to do for other federal courts through the PACER system.

“The courts will often choose to be late to the harvest of American ingenuity,” Roberts conceded in his 16-page 2014 Year-end Report on the Federal Judiciary. “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 operation.”

Very cautiously, indeed: Roberts makes no mention in his year-end report of cameras in the courtroom. Instead, the history buff makes wry reference to the several decades it took for the Supreme Court to adopt that hot late 19th century office technology, the pneumatic tube.

To further make his point, Roberts observed that the Supreme Court building includes imagery drawn from the fable of the tortoise and the hare; symbolizing, Roberts suggests, “the judiciary’s commitment to constant but deliberate progress in the cause of justice.”

Inaugurated in 2001, the Case Management/Electronic Case Files system that’s accessible via PACER currently contains, in aggregate, more than one billion retrievable documents spread among the 13 courts of appeals, 94 district courts, 90 bankruptcy courts, and other specialized tribunals. More than 2.5 million documents are filed each month.

Unlike PACER, though, which currently allows free searching but charges 10 cents a page to view documents, Roberts said the eventual Supreme Court system will provide free access to all documents through the court’s own web page. The thousands of pro se petitions filed by the impoverished and the incarcerated will be scanned and provided as well.

“Like other centuries-old institutions, courts may have practices that seem archaic and inefficient, and some are,” Roberts noted. “But others rest on traditions that embody intangible wisdom. Judges and court executives are understandably circumspect in introducing change to a court system that works well until they are satisfied that they are introducing change for the good.”

In the four-page appendix, Roberts recounts that the total number of cases filed in the Supreme Court decreased from 7,509 filings in the 2012 Term to 7,376 filings in the 2013 Term.

In the regional courts of appeals, filings decreased three percent to 54,988. Civil case filings in the U.S. district courts rose four percent to 295,310.

Driven in part by a 14 percent decline in federal drug cases, overall filings for criminal defendants in district courts dropped 11 percent to 81,226.