Redesigning The Government: The U.S. Supreme Court

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Introduction Image President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sotomayor has brought increased attention to the U.S. Supreme Court. It also has led us to reexamine the Court’s web site, which is long overdue for an overhaul. In its current form, its web design is suggestive of the 1990s, and its functionality is similarly dated.

The Justices appear to agree. They’ve recently ask Congress for money to move control of the site in-house, taking over responsibility from the GPO. This move would allow them, in their words, to “better control and manage the web site and to be able to expand the data and services provided by the site more efficiently.”

The current web site has many shortcomings. It doesn’t contain briefs by the parties and omits all but a few relatively recent Court opinions. Its navigation is a nightmare and its design fails to incorporate modern techniques such as RSS feeds and XML. Much information is unnecessarily locked in PDFs. And yet, in January 2009 the nine-year-old site received 18 million hits.

To help the Court update its web presence, the Sunlight Foundation has put together the following mock-up.

The most important aspect of the mock-up is that it takes into account the web site’s diverse users. It accommodates the general public and students, legal researchers, court researchers, and litigants. Accordingly, we believe the redesigned web site must be simple, straightforward, and robust. It must strive to make the Court’s proceedings transparent, incorporate modern design principles, and meet the higher expectations of today’s web user.

This post is the next in a series of government web site mock-ups that suggests how parts of the government should transform their online presence. Previous iterations have included: USA.govFEC.govEPA.gov, and Data.gov.

Under the fold, we have the mock-up and detailed descriptions of how the Supreme Court web site should be redesigned.

Home Page

The home page must be accessible to everyone. It should allow for quick and easy searches, identify the Justices, and include content that quickly and readily engages someone’s interest. The current site, by contrast, is simply a picture and a list of links.

We’ve added search box at the top of the page to serve as the main source of navigation. Also at the top of the page is recent news, which allows users to get a quick glimpse of anything new.

In addition to the search box, we’ve included a small graphic and link to the Supreme Court’s calendar. This way, viewers can get a quick glance at the schedule of upcoming argument while being able to click on links for more information.

Another feature is the recent decision section. It contains links to the full decision, the details of the case, and any time another law is referred to. This allows users to dig as deep as they’d like so as to get the full picture of what happened.

One small but important detail include adding an RSS feed to the recent decisions. The RSS feed would permit users to access the information that they want through an RSS reader without having to come back to the site everyday.

At the bottom of the page is basic information about the Justices, which also serves as a gateway for more information about the Court.

Click on the images for a larger view.

Current Supreme Court Home Page PictureSunlight Mock-up Home Page Picture

About the Court

The “About the Court” page should provide a good overview for people who aren’t that familiar with the Supreme Court. Much of this information is already available, but is very difficult to find or view. Often, the data can only be found in a PDF.

By adding visuals to a page, users immediately grasp what’s happening even if they’re simply scanning the page. We also are again showing snippets of content to allow users to be able to scan the various content and choose to click through if they want more information.

This is exemplified by brief snippets of information about each of the Justices (including all former Justices), and a graphic representation of where cases originate by circuit.

Current Supreme Court About The Court Page Picture Sunlight Mock-up About The Court Page Picture

Proceedings: Landing Page

The mock-up gives users the ability to search through all proceedings by term, by name, by justice, by topic, and so on, all of which is unavailable on the current web site. By giving users this tool, they can both browse through cases and immediately identify the specific case they need.

We also break out the proceedings so that users have all the holdings front and center, with links to the full decision and the details of the case. There is an RSS feed so that users can be notified the moment a new decision is released.

We’ve also added a database that contains how the Justices voted in each case. The underlying voting pattern data are exportable for scholarly analysis.

Current Supreme Court Proceedings Page Picture Sunlight Mock-up Proceedings Page Picture

Proceedings: Case by Case

The top of the page contains basic information about the case — its docket number, the question presented, the parties, and its subject matter. In addition, there’s a handy status box containing information on how the case was decided, when it is scheduled for argument (and a link to a transcript and audio/video), its citation, and the ability to check to see whether the decision is still good law.

The bulk of the page is occupied by the case’s proceedings and orders. Organized chronologically — from petition for a writ of certiorari to final decision — each action is cataloged and summarized. We suggest that the Court adopt the practice of uploading the briefs from each party, and add links to each filing or order as they occur. In addition, we’ve added an RSS feed, so that users can monitor the case without having to view the page.

The bottom of the page contains the case’s procedural posture. It includes links to documents containing lower court filings and a description of the disposition of the case. This information is omitted from the current Supreme Court web site, but is very useful in helping understand the background underlying the Court’s decision.

We suggest that there be several URLs for each case page. Both the docket number (e.g. http://www.supremecourtus.gov/case/2008-108) and Supreme Court Reporter citation (http://www.supremecourtus.gov/case/556US103) should link to the same page. This way, people can build hyperlinks to cases using readily available public information.

Current Supreme Court Case Page Picture Sunlight Mock-up Case Page Picture

Court Procedure

We did not mock-up the court procedure web page (or the following pages), but we envision the court procedure page’s contents as focusing on parties before the Court. It should contain the Courts’ Rules of Procedure, a guide for counsel arguing before the Court, how to deliver documents to the Clerk (including a way to e-file), bar admissions applications, and a list of all counsel who have argued before the Court.

Calendar

Each year the Supreme Court makes available a calendar of its argument and conference schedule. We suggest translating this calendar from PDF to html/XML, and placing it online. In other words, users will be able to see on the web page the Court’s argument calendar, and by hovering their mouse over (or click on) a particular date, to see what cases are scheduled for that day. All previous calendars should be available here as well.

Visiting the Court

This page contains basic information about visiting the court. It should include a map, hours of operation, tour information, argument schedules, etc. It could also include a virtual tour of the building as well.

Blog

The Supreme Court is the only branch of government that does not have a blog, which is ironic since so much of what the Court does lends itself to written form. Indeed, because the Court communicates in writing, the best way for the public to understand what the Court is doing is to read its orders and opinions. The blog can serve as a gateway to this information.

At a minimum, the Court’s blog should include contemporaneous summaries of and links to decisions, highlight and link to speeches given by the Justices, promote press releases and media advisories, and identify other major reports (such as the year-end report on the federal judiciary).

A more ambitious goal would be to hire a reporter to cover the Court from the inside out. For example, the reporter could provide information about the history of the Court, the people who make it function, coverage of oral arguments (or even audio or video), etc. Having a reporter on the inside would help demystify what the Court does and provide additional context for its actions.

Contact

This page would contain basic information on how to contact the Court, and would link to information about visiting the Court.

Conclusion

Of course, this is just our view on how the Supreme Court web site should look. Tell us yours in the comments. Ultimately, we will present these finding to the Supreme Court for its use. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact us directly.

Ali Felski (Sunlight Senior Labs Designer)

Daniel Schuman (Policy Counsel)

One final note: this pages are intended as mock-ups, and don’t necessarily reflect how the Court has ruled in any particular case.

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  • Daniel Schuman

    ChristianK,

    You ask what is actually a somewhat complicated question.

    Next to where you see the outcome of 5-4, you will see language like “affirmed and remanded” or “reversed and remanded.” Before the case was heard by the Supreme Court, it was heard by a lower court — maybe one of the Courts of Appeal or state Supreme Courts. That lower court reached a decision, which the Supreme Court has agreed to review.

    It is that lower court decision that the Supreme Court voted on. The Court could vote to uphold (i.e., affirm) or overturn (i.e., reverse) the lower court’s decision. The number 5-4 indicates how many justices voted to affirm — 5 — and how many voted to overturn — 4.

    Almost all of the time, that lower court decision wasn’t the first time a Court had reached a decision. There was an even lower court decision — a decision by a trial court.

    So, what you normally have is a decision by a trial court, then a court of appeal, then the U.S. Supreme Court. If the case originated in a state court, you have yet another court that has looked at the decision before it began this entire process.

    As a result, the information as to who was the original plaintiff or defendant isn’t always obvious. You need to read the final opinion to find out.

    [You didn’t ask this directly, but there’s a bit more to the story. The vote 5-4 only has to do with the result in the case, that is, whether the earlier decision was upheld or overturned. It says nothing about the reasoning the Court used to reach its decision. That is a lot more complicated, so if you click on the hyperlink on 5-4, it would take you to a page that explains in greater detail the reasoning behind the justice’s decisions.]

  • ChristianK

    For me as someone who doesn’t know much about the court it’s not directly clear mockup whether 5-4 means a Yes or a No on an issue.
    Does it mean that the court found for the plainty or for the defendent?

  • Faruk:

    I agree with you that the Court should make sure the PDFs are scanned properly — not as images — so their contents should be readable through automated systems. I would add, however, that the Court uses PDFs in inappropriate ways.

    My understanding is that the main purpose of a PDF is to preserve a document’s formating. When the document contains basic information, such as a short biography of a justice or argument schedule, it doesn’t make sense to force a user to open the PDF to get at the info. It should accessible by a click, not just a click and download. (Particularly when you then have to have a PDF reader on your computer as well). My suggestion would be to have both formats available.

    Jackson:

    Thanks for the comment. We’re looking for ways to make the contents understandable at a glance, without oversimplifying or beating users over the head with it. There may be other ways to do so, and we welcome your ideas.

    Mark:

    Thank you for your kind words.

    Anything that opens up government makes a lot of sense, and a blog could really help the Court interface with the modern world.

    I would love it if the Court were willing to work with the public to determine what its site should look like. I only wish they would be as willing as the Australian government has been — particularly the very cool Future Melbourne initiative. http://www.futuremelbourne.com.au/wiki/view/FMPlan

    By the way, there’s been a couple of news reports on this blog post.

    * The New York Times “The Lede” blog: http://bit.ly/4iD1j
    * Tech President: http://bit.ly/QvOVI
    * FastCompany: http://bit.ly/Baren
    * ABA Law Journal: http://bit.ly/7Jecx

    And an interview:

    * Federal News Radio: http://bit.ly/SkrMx

  • Beautiful work Daniel – and the Sunlight approach is inspired (providing such fantastic designs at no cost to the org with the sole purpose of the community’s betterment). We need an Australian Sunlight!

    I also second a WordPress blog (and great to highlight that they are the only branch of government that does not have a blog). Gov blogs often are forced into existing systems that were never really meant for that type of functionality. The simplicity of a blog can be misleading for designers, leading them to think they can easily replicate it. We’ve seen some pretty mangled gov blogs here in Australia that in the end give the tool/process a bad name…

  • Daniel, you and Ali did a really great job on this, and of course I’m looking forward to more.

    The only nit is that a couple of examples of the information design seem a bit forced, like the pie charts in the case listings on the home page. Pie charts are less understandable than just saying 5-4 (the numbers themselves are probably the simplest possible way of relaying the data), and trying to boil a SCOTUS case down to a number and a five-word result is probably only useful to those who are actively following a case.

    Sunlight seems to have a bit of an overemphasis on this kind of thing lately, showing wordle charts of things that poorly convey the wrong kind of data, etc. It’s important to remember that oversimplifying data is perhaps more dangerous and more of a disservice than the complex data ever was.

    Seriously, though, that’s a nit. The visual design is obviously really well-done, and some of the structural elements (the color bar on the case detail page, linking cases by the statute in question, and the decreased reliance on PDF) would really drive the court forward. Looking forward to the next installment!

  • PDFs can be made accessible themselves, so scanning them in as images is actually a really bad approach that makes them _less accessible_ through _more effort_.

    It’s much better to invest in making sure the PDFs get created properly and then simply put them up for download on the site; additionally, when they’re created properly in the first place, their contents can be read out through automated systems that can extract the contents and turn those into accessible HTML or XML for use on the web.

    There’s more to redesigning a site when making a government organization more transparent and accessible, but aiming for a content-rich AND fully accessible website is a great approach to tackle the whole of the problem.

    On a different note: this design is fantastic, beautiful and modern yet stylish and very fitting to the Supreme Court. I absolutely love it.

  • Kristine:

    Your point about accessibility is an important one.

    The Court relies on PDFs as a major way of making information available. However, because many of those files are scanned in as images, there’s no way to get at the underlying data. People using software to have the site read to them cannot access those files at all. I’m sure there are many other issues that we could identify.

    Shayla:

    The issue of PACER is another big can of worms. I don’t know enough to address it at this point, but I want to acknowledge your comment.

    Ed:

    Your link to fastcase didn’t seem to work. Here is it: https://www.fastcase.com/Corporate/Home.aspx

    Thank you for helping to put the Supreme Court’s cases into public domain. Let’s hope the Court will make them all available on its site.

    AAinslie:

    I will leave a response to your comments for someone more tech-savy than I.

  • What if all of these suggested govt. site redesigns were templated on the extensible, multi-tenant capable, open source enterprise portal and social collaboration platform, Liferay? See: http://www.Liferay.com

    Seems to me like a good way to rationalize costs and harmonize all of these silos, laterally.

    Throw the lot up into NASA’s #cloud offering, NEBULA, and you are good to go! See: http://nebula.nasa.gov/services

    Exposing these data silos via an online database provider such as Socrata (formerly Blist) which is now a “#Social_Network for people who love public #data”. See: http://bit.ly/Socrata

    I would love to hear constructive thoughts and comments from readers of this post and from stakeholders on the above suggestions.

    @AAinslie

  • Kristine

    I just hope if you do, you make accessibility a focal point. The current sites do not do that. And I mean real accessibility WCAG P1 and P2 – new guidelines, not just 508.

  • Shayla Lee

    Love the mock-ups, but I don’t like the idea of the Justices asking Congress for money especially given the deficit concerns expressed by Bernake. I’d like the Court to use some of the $32 million surplus from PACER charges.

  • This is an extremely well thought-out template. My company Fastcase recently made the complete backfile of Supreme Court cases available in the public domain with Public.Resource.org. We’d be happy to work with Sunlight or the Supreme Court — either on the site or on the search components.

    (And Tom, I think WordPress would be the way to go, so the site would be simple to administer and not so static.)

    Finally, we should be sure to give credit to the Court for recognizing the need for a makeover, for requesting an appropriation to do it, and for bringing the project in house. Very promising.

  • Looks like it could be done with WordPress too. That would be cool.

  • Aaron,

    We would be thrilled to talk with the Court about what they should include on a revamped web site. They’ve already gone before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch to ask for some money to upgrade their site. We wouldn’t build the site ourselves, but we’d love to talk with them as they’re figuring out what they want.

    Luigi,

    You’re right: Oyez does a fantastic job — particularly under difficult circumstances. They are transferring (some) old audio records stored at the national archives and making them available on line.

    I bet they would have interesting ideas about whether recordings should be made available contemporaneously and the formats for doing so.

  • Yes, what Chris Saad said!

  • You guys are an inspiration… the site design looks great! Your case pages are gorgeous. Just goes to show what great design can do.

  • Really… a brilliant concept piece for the SCOTUS. Accessible, easy to look at. Easy to drill down on. And the data hierarchy that already exists is just lending itself to a rearchitecture like this.

    Is Sunlight in the business of making this happen, if SCOTUS RFPd this out?

  • Chris,

    We would love for the Court to take these mock-ups and use them. They definitely have our permission.

  • This is *amazing*. They should take the mockups and use them wholesale. Do they have sunlight’s permission to do that?

  • I remember talking to a SCOTUS geek who said he loved listening to the oral arguments in podcast form. Oyez.org looks like they have some great ideas around that:

    http://www.oyez.org/