One of the last digital document holdouts is throwing in the towel. The Supreme Court recently announced that it intends to put its records online next year.

Just months after the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system came under sharp criticism for being behind the times, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. announced the decision in his annual year-end report.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court is planning to set up its own system rather than make use of one used by other federal courts, writes the New York Times. “All filings at the court—petitions and responses to petitions, merits briefs, and all other types of motions and applications—will be available to the legal community and the public without cost on the court’s website,” Roberts wrote.

“Without cost” is a significant factor, as one of the criticisms of the PACER system has been its price, especially when applied to voluminous court documents.

Currently, only a few Supreme Court documents, including its rulings, are available on its public website, writes Reuters. Other documents, including all the briefs filed by litigants, are available online through third-party legal research sites. The only other source is a news website that covers the court called SCOTUSblog, which posts those documents online at its own expense, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While attorneys will continue to file documents on paper, the system should eventually allow for electronic filing, after it proves itself, Roberts wrote—but paper filings will still be required. “Unlike commercial enterprises, the courts cannot decide to serve only the most technically-capable or well-equipped segments of the public,” he noted. “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.”

Switching to electronic submission offers the promise of drastically reducing the amount of paper required to submit documents to the court, noted the AP, pointing out that attorneys sometimes have to submit as many as 40 copies of a document.

“The federal courts, including the Supreme Court, must often introduce new technologies at a more measured pace than other institutions, especially those in private industry,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, going on to describe the Court’s use of pneumatic tubes when it set up the courthouse in 1935—a technology it continued to use until 1971. There are lessons in “the Supreme Court’s belated embrace and overdue abandonment of a pneumatic conveyance system,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “The courts will always be prudent whenever it comes to embracing the ‘next big thing.’ ”

Indeed, members of the Supreme Court don’t even communicate with each other by email, noted justice Elana Kagan in 2013. And while the court began making audio recordings in 1955, it didn’t make them available to the public until 1993, and didn’t make them available during the current term until 2010.

But Roberts went on to point out that the Court deliberately embraces its tortoise image, writes the Washington Post. “[Roberts] noted that the court’s east pediment features, among the images of historic lawgivers, the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Architect Cass Gilbert paid tribute to the winner of the race by placing large bronze turtles at the bases of the court’s exterior lamposts, Roberts wrote.” (Even in the case of pneumatic tubes, the Court waited more than forty years before using that new-fangled technology.)

Part of the Court’s hesitation has been security. “Courts understandably proceed cautiously in introducing new information technology systems until they have fairly considered how to keep the information contained therein secure from foreign and domestic hackers, whose motives may range from fishing for secrets to discrediting the government or impairing court operations,”  Roberts wrote.

However, some traditions won’t die: To the relief of courtroom sketch artists, the Court still won’t allow photographs.


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