Everyone knows Google is changing the way college kids write their term papers. What’s less well-known is that it’s also changing how Supreme Court justices write their opinions.
In an article in the Virginia Law Review, Allison Orr Larsen, a law professor at the College of William & Mary, shows just how prevalent online research is at the Supreme Court. After analyzing the citations in 10 years’ worth of Supreme Court opinions, Larsen finds that, more and more, the justices are Googling for themselves, and drawing on facts they find through the Internet to explain their decisions.
It might seem like a good thing for judges to search out the facts on their own. But that’s not necessarily how courts are supposed to work. Traditionally, courts have their own ways of sorting the facts out: Either side can introduce factual evidence into argument; the other side can dispute that evidence. Judges try to work with facts that have been vetted by both sides. Occasionally extra research might seem warranted—famously, Harry Blackmun camped out at the Mayo Clinic Library to do research for Roe v. Wade—but, by and large, judges have stuck to the facts cited in the briefs.
All that is changing, though, because the Web puts so much information right at the fingertips of judges, or their clerks. Now, around half of the facts cited in a typical Supreme Court opinion come from “sources that are not strictly ‘legal,’” Larsen writes. She found judges citing scholarly journals, medical research, the Sacramento Bee, Golf Magazine, and websites with a wide range of reliability. Some websites drew on official government data; others were run by very partisan think tanks. “All members of the court do it,” Larsen reports, “regardless of whether they are traditionally labeled liberal or conservative.”
It’s not a bad thing for court opinions to take account of facts, of course. But the reliance of individual justices on internally researched facts is a bad development, Larsen believes, because facts unearthed by a justice never have to face scrutiny from the opposition. Moreover, she argues, “in-house” facts are easily shaped by bias: Just like anyone else, Supreme Court justices will tend to engage in “motivated reasoning,” seeking out information from sources they know in advance will agree with them.
What to do? In-house judicial research should either be shut down, she concludes, or delegated to an independent entity like the Congressional Research Service. If things continue as they are, she warns, opinions at the Supreme Court might become more like the opinions in your favorite online discussion forum.
What you can make with one thread
Kumi Yamashita’s “Constellation” portraits are an incredible exercise in minimalism. Yamashita, who was born in Japan and now lives in New York, constructs the portraits out of simple materials: “a wooden panel painted a solid white, thousands of small galvanized nails, and a single, unbroken, common sewing thread.”
Yamashita is an expert in the use of minimal materials: Her remarkable origami shadow sculptures use contoured sheets of paper and a light source to produce a human face; she makes “warp and weft” portraits by pulling on threads in a single piece of fabric. You can see more artwork at her website, www.kumiyamashita.com.