Cheryl and I went to see the Honorable John G. Roberts, Jr., the Chief Justice of the United States, give this years Dwight D. Opperman Lecture in Constitutional Law at Drake University.
He talked about the advancement of legal resources available and how the Supreme Court has adapted over the years. Not exactly the topic that I thought I would hear, but he was gearing his topic to law students and professors and not the general public. A fun fact that I didn’t know is that when Congress first had the Library of Congress built they didn’t give borrowing privileges to the Supreme Court Justices because the were afraid “the books would get used and cause wear and tear.” Only until 1812 shortly before the British burnt the Library down were they granted borrowing privileges.
He stated that when the Court first convened in 1790 there were very few legal resources. As that grew there was a growing number of precedents and increasing case law, but it was poorly organized and the problem that they faced is that all sorts of decisions and legal precedents were mentioned, but many of those references were superficially on point. He said that better decisions were being made with fewer books in the 18th century than much of the 19th century. Roberts stated:
“Too much information can be as problematic as too little information.”
That was improved by indexing and annotations and an organizational system was developed in the late 19th century and into the 20th century. There is a similar potential problem with the rise of new media sources such as computer assisted research and online research. Much of case law is at ones fingertips. A large part of law school was learning how to find precedents that supported their arguments. That is becoming irrelevant, but now he says that these tools can be misused because if you focus on words instead of concepts, then you can reference case law that is superficially on point. Leading to the same problem the Court faced in the 18th century of too much information.
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