The (Non)Finality of Supreme Court Opinions

Source: Richard J. Lazarus, Harvard Law Review, forthcoming – December 2014

Hiding in plain sight at the top of a Supreme Court opinion when first issued is a formal notice that “this opinion is subject to formal revision.” Readers have long assumed that any such revisions are both rarely made and entirely nonsubstantive in nature. Neither is true. Apart from the anticipated routine proofreading corrections of typographical errors, misspellings, and incidental grammatical mistakes, which are many, the Justices routinely correct mistakes in majority and separate opinions relating to the arguments of the parties, record below, historical facts, relevant statutes and regulations, opinions of their colleagues, and Court precedent. The Justices also, even more significantly, sometimes change their initial reasoning in support of their legal conclusions. To all these ends, they sometimes add, delete, and substitute words, phrases, and sentences. Unaware of the existence and degree of such changes, the public routinely refers to versions of opinions of the Court and of Justices that, while superseded, are nonetheless perpetuated through lower court opinions, websites, and even leading academic casebooks. This article is the first to explore the Court’s practice of revising its opinions after initial publication, which one Justice privately referred to as “a strange and reverse basis” and a Court official described as “completely at odds with general publishing practices.” The article examines the depth and breadth of the practice since the Court’s first opinions through present days. It describes both the institutional reasons for the practice, which one Justice privately speculated extended to each Justice’s natural inclination to “rush to judgment” and “to get ‘on the scoreboard’” as soon as “all the votes are in” and possibly “to guard against any last minute shifting of a vote.” The article also describes how the Court’s related procedures for revision have shifted over time to become increasingly less transparent and potentially lacking in the degree of procedural fairness and rigor appropriate for opinions of the Court and of the Justices. The article recommends that the Court amend its current practices to provide at the very least for after-the-fact disclosure of changes made both to increase transparency and to provide, indirectly, some check against unnecessary substantive changes. The article further recommends that the Court consider the possibility of providing prior notice as well in certain circumstances. …
Final Word on U.S. Law Isn’t: Supreme Court Keeps Editing
Source: Adam Liptak, New York Times, May 24, 2014

Harvard Law study finds Supreme Court editing its decisions without notice
Source: Alexander Howard, E Pluribus Unum blog, May 25, 2014