Sign-on Letter asking the U.S. Supreme Court to release to the public 14 years of court opinions.

The attached sign-on letter asks Chief Justice Rehnquist to put into the public domain the electronic copies of the typesetting files used to print the official version of all U.S. Supreme Court Decisions since 1982.

To add your name to the letter, send a note James Love, at , by October 18, 1996.

We are trying to get a copy of the ATEX typesetting files used to publish the United States Reports, the government's official reporter of U.S. Supreme Court opinions. The Air Force has recently released (from its FLITE database) copies of Supreme Court decisions from 1937 to 1975. If Rehnquist agrees, the public would have free access to 54 of the last 60 years of Supreme Court opinions, missing only the opinions from 1976 to 1981. The records are now controlled by Frank Wagner, the Reporter of Decisions for the Supreme Court, who can be reached at the court's main number, at 202/479-3000. In 1993 Mr. Wagner denied a request by Alan Sugarman for copies of these records. Mr. Wagner recently declined to talk with us about the ATEX records. The decision about public access to these records is reportedly made by Rehnquist himself. For more background on issues relating to public access to court opinions, see: .

jamie (

The letter follows...

October 18, 1996

Chief Justice William Rehnquist
United States Supreme Court
Washington, DC 20543

Dear Chief Justice Rehnquist:

We are writing to ask that the United States Supreme Court release to the public copies of the electronic media used for printing the United States Reports. It is our understanding that the Court currently has magnetic tapes which contain the typesetting computer files used to print the United States Reports from 1982 to the present, and that these tapes have not been released to the public. We seek to obtain copies of these tapes to publish the Supreme Court decisions on the Internet, the decisions will be available to the general public, for free. As you know, the public has already paid the costs of creating this data through tax dollars, and federal law prohibits the copyright of works of federal employees. We are willing to pay the court any reasonable additional costs associated with making copies of the printing tapes. We want to make it clear that we are not asking the court to undertake any extra data processing expense, outside of making copies of the tapes.*

This request is part of our larger efforts to enhance the public's access to information from the courts. In September the U.S. Air Force was persuaded to release a portion of its FLITE database of U.S. Supreme Court opinions. The Air Force released to the public about 7,400 Supreme Court decisions from 1937 to 1975. It took more than four years to get the Air Force to release these public documents, which were created at taxpayer expense. Due to a copyright dispute with West Publishing, the Air Force has refused to release copies of its post 1975 Supreme Court Opinions, which were typed in from the West Supreme Court Reporter, rather than from the government's own United States Reports.

As you may know, there is great public frustration over the restricted access to federal court opinions. This is a particular problem with the U.S. Circuit and District Courts, where West Publishing is the only comprehensive publisher of opinions, and West asserts a copyright to the corrections that appear in the published versions of the opinions, and also to the citations to the court opinions. West's activities have had the practical effect of giving this private firm a monopoly on the version of American jurisprudence that is widely recognized as the authoritative record of the lower federal courts.

The Supreme Court has a proud history of making its opinions publicly available, through its long-term publication of opinions in print through United States Reports, and since 1990 through making its slip opinions available to the public electronically. The Court should now take the additional step of releasing the electronic record of the United States Reports, so that the public can be assured of the greatest access to the law.


* It is our understanding that the data exists in ATEX typesetting format. This is the same format used by GPO to publish the Federal Register. GPO gives the public access to the ATEX files of the Federal Register, and we urge the Supreme Court to do the same.