Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Civil Rights and the Supreme Court: An On-Line Archive

David Achtenberg, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law has announced the "roll out" of his Petition to Decision website. It is "a comprehensive digital archive of all the available papers of the Supreme Court justices relating to selected civil rights cases. It may be interesting to those who study the internal workings of the Court as well as to those with a particular interest in civil rights litigation."

According to Professor Achtenberg, the website
presents an interactive timeline of the various cases, identifying every step in the justices' decision-making process and linking each step to digital copies the relevant internal papers. A typical case file includes the pool memoranda regarding certiorari (together with annotations by the various justices and their clerks), notes prior to and during the cert conference, various notes and memoranda prior to oral argument, justices' oral argument notes, justices' records of what took place at the merits conference, miscellaneous memoranda to and from the justices discussing the case, and annotated drafts of the various opinions. . . . The timelines make it possible to study the Court's handling of the cases from the filing of the petition for certiorari until announcement of the final decision.

For those who prefer to review the papers without interpretation, the website also makes it possible to view the documents in archive order, i.e., arranged into digital boxes and folders that correspond to the ones in which the original hard copies are stored. These "Archive Pages" may be particularly useful for teachers who want to give their students a feel for what it is like to do archival legal history research.

Additional features of the website include transcriptions of important but hard-to-decipher handwritten documents, short descriptions of the legal significance and background story of each case, and links to more readily publicly available documents such as briefs, appendices, oral arguments.

The website focuses on decisions in which the Supreme Court interpreted 42 U.S.C. §1983, the principal statutory vehicle used to sue state and local officials for violations of constitutional rights. The long range plan is for Petition to Decision to include a wide range of §1983 cases dealing with issues such as municipal liability, official immunity, color of law, etc. The current, pilot version of the website is limited to cases dealing with municipal liability issues. Additional case files and features will be added on a regular basis.