Final Word on U.S. Law Isn’t: Supreme Court Keeps Editing, by Adam Liptak, The New York Times

Corrections to typos or bad citations do not bother me. But I did not realize that any court could make substantive changes in already published, official opinions. Perhaps I wrongfully assumed that mandate had issued? Regardless, the practice of making substantive changes to published opinions creates a significant legal research problem. -CCE 

The Supreme Court has been quietly revising its decisions years after they were issued, altering the law of the land without public notice. The revisions include ‘truly substantive changes in factual statements and legal reasoning,’ said Richard J. Lazarus, a law professor at Harvard and the author of a new study examining the phenomenon.

The court can act quickly, as when Justice Antonin Scalia last month corrected an embarrassing error in a dissent in a case involving the Environmental Protection Agency.

But most changes are neither prompt nor publicized, and the court’s secretive editing process has led judges and law professors astray, causing them to rely on passages that were later scrubbed from the official record. The widening public access to online versions of the court’s decisions, some of which do not reflect the final wording, has made the longstanding problem more pronounced.

Unannounced changes have not reversed decisions outright, but they have withdrawn conclusions on significant points of law. They have also retreated from descriptions of common ground with other justices, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor did in a major gay rights case.

Justice Antonin Scalia corrected his recent dissent in a case involving the Environmental Protection Agency. Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images

The larger point, said Jeffrey L. Fisher, a law professor at Stanford, is that Supreme Court decisions are parsed by judges and scholars with exceptional care. ‘In Supreme Court opinions, every word matters,’ he said. ‘When they’re changing the wording of opinions, they’re basically rewriting the law.’ . . .