2/17/15 The Final Word

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Fewer modern-day documents are as thoroughly examined and the words and meanings as closely scrutinized as a Supreme Court decision.

An opinion often has an immediate impact throughout the nation.

But here’€™s something most people don’€™t know.  The official version of a Supreme Court opinion is published in a document known as United States Reports.

It’s taken as long as six years before these are published.

In the meantime, there are three other versions of an opinion made available.  None of which is the final word.  

This is significant.  Because the Supreme Court has revised, altered and changed some decisions without ever making any public notice.

To be fair, there hasn’t been a reversal of an opinion.  But there have been significant changes to aspects of a decision.  These changes could impact law school instruction.  They could also alter the way lower courts implement high court rulings.

As Harvard Law School Professor Richard Lazarus noted in his paper on the topic, the most extreme example of revision was committed by Roger Taney.  As chief justice, he added 18 pages to the 1857 Dred Scott decision.  It was this decision that legalized slavery.

Today’s technology easily allows the Supreme Court to fully and immediately inform the public of any changes to its opinions.  

That’s the least it could do.

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