Making The Law Free

Curator's Note

Every year, a few Senators call for televised Supreme Court arguments (background here). The pro-camera lobby values transparency where the impact is low; transcripts are available, and Supreme Court arguments don’t impact many people. But Supreme Court decisions might impact everyone (think Citizens United and political spending). Meanwhile, there is almost no enthusiasm for a high impact access and transparency problem: access to briefs, petitions, and decisions from all other courts is costly and cumbersome. 

I believe that in a country of laws, everyone should be able to access the law. 

Sites partially fill the gap. I love (background here). The Supreme Court Database, Google Scholar, FindLaw, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell, and the Cert Pool are wonderful. provides unbeatable SCOTUS coverage  (disclosure: I am a former writer). These sites are free, useful, and navigable. While this may work for the Supreme Court, the status quo leaves cases unavailable from State, district, and Appellate Courts.

The Court or Senate should require that every opinion, brief, and petition at every level be filed, indexed for search, and made freely available online. The policy should apply to current and historic materials. The legal liberation would be a first step towards democratizing legal access. Developers could then build apps usesful for researchers, law enforcement, and citizens.

Stewart Brand noted that "[I]nformation wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable...On the other hand, Information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time." Capitalism and government negligence make legal information expensive. In our idealistic and ambitious democracy, access to the law should never be expensive; it should be free.



Thanks for adding your voice to the week, Matt. I think your post addresses the underlying theme of much of the week: the (in)visibility of the Court. Certainly, the number of sites you cite that report on the goings on of the Supreme Court indicate that there is a gap to be filled that the government, particularly SCOTUS itself, could fill and in doing so gain a degree of control and centrality over the discourse. This might even decrease the weight given to those few instances of accessible deliberations so that even audio as inflammatory as Scalia's recent "racial entitlement" soundbite wouldn't merit a multi-day newscycle.

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