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Finding Revisions to Supreme Court Opinions

Earlier this year, many were surprised to learn that Supreme Court opinions can be, and often are revised after the opinion’s initial release. The news articles regarding the practice were inspired by a  forthcoming article in the Harvard Law Review by Professor Richard J. Lazarus where the phenomenon, and its prevalence are examined.

The Supreme Court has noted that its opinions are not final until they are published in the official United States Reports (Morgan Stanley Capital Grp. v. Pub. Util. Dist. No. 1, 554 U.S. 527
(2008)). The time from when the bench opinion is issued to the actual publication of the print United States Reports volumes can extend over five years. After the bench opinion is released at the court upon announcement, a slip opinion is made available soon after. A couple of years later, the softcover preliminary prints of the United States Reports are published, with the notation that the opinions are still subject to revision.

According to Professor Lazarus, legal publishers like West and LexisNexis are given access to the changes to keep databases current, but it is difficult for the researcher to determine when any edits or changes were made. However, HeinOnline's Supreme Court Library maintains copies of not only the United States Reports, but also slip opinions and preliminary prints. To access the different versions of the same opinion, go to HeinOnline and select the Supreme Court Library. Next, click on the search tab and select “advanced search.” Then, enter the case name in the “case title” field (ex. Lawrence v. Texas) and search. The results will pull the three versions of the opinion so they may be compared side-by-side.

For a more passive approach, learn about changes to newer opinions by following @SCOTUS_servo, a Twitter account that alerts followers when the Court edits its decisions. The Twitter account crawls through electronic copies of decisions posted in the Supreme Court’s website. Whenever the program detects a change in a decision’s text, it alerts @SCOTUS_servo followers.

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