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R, Reporting of Opinions.

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman

From: The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (2nd Edition)

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall

From: Oxford Constitutions (http://oxcon.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2023. All Rights Reserved. Subscriber: null; date: 24 May 2024

Reporting of Opinions.

Few early American judicial decisions were systematically published. Ephraim Kirby published the first volume of state law reports in America, and soon afterward Alexander *Dallas published his reports of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Dallas’s first Pennsylvania Supreme Court volume, published in 1790, became “1 Dallas,” first volume of the series that became the *United States Reports. Dallas, while continuing to publish the Pennsylvania cases in another series, filled a parallel line of volumes starting with “2 Dallas” with opinions of the United States Supreme Court. His successors up to 1874, William *Cranch, Henry *Wheaton, Richard *Peters, Benjamin *Howard, Jeremiah *Black, and John *Wallace, also edited Supreme Court reports bearing their names.

The initial volumes were purely commercial ventures, and the reporter received no government compensation. Editing and publishing the reports were a demanding private enterprise. There were sometimes long lapses between the announcement of a decision by the Court and its publication. Prices for the books were high, the market was limited, and many of the Court’s early decisions were not published at all, or were published inaccurately.

In 1816, Congress officially created the office of reporter, and in 1817 it established a one-thousand-dollar annual salary for the position. This salary supplemented whatever revenue the reporter already received from sales of the published volumes. In a letter of 7 February 1817, Chief Justice John *Marshall said that the Court’s justices all concurred “that the object of the bill is in a high degree desirable.” Marshall thought that accurate and prompt reporting of cases was “essential to correctness and uniformity of decision in all the courts of the United States.” The justices’ experience had been that “the publication of decisions of the Supreme Court will remain on a very precarious footing if the reporter is to depend solely on the sales of his work for a reimbursement of the expenses which must be incurred in preparing it, and for his own compensation. The patronage of the Government is believed to be necessary to the secure and certain attainment of the object.”

Under Henry Wheaton, reporter from 1816 to 1827, annotated Supreme Court decisions first appeared, and volumes were published more promptly. Wheaton sued his successor, Richard Peters, for infringement of *copyright when Peters published a less expensive set of reports, impairing (p. 849) the market for Wheaton’s volumes. The Court decided in Wheaton v. Peters (1834), however, that the reporter held no copyright in the Court’s decisions. This permitted competing versions of Supreme Court reports.

The judiciary appropriation of 1874 for the first time allocated twenty-five thousand dollars for the purpose of official reporting, and starting with volume 91 the United States Reports no longer carried the name of the current reporter of decisions. Until 1921, the government authorized private publishers to publish the Reports, but since 1921 they have been published only by the Government Printing Office.

The West Publishing Company began its *Supreme Court Reporter series in 1883, starting with cases decided in the October 1882 term. Its reports continue today. The Lawyers Co-Operative Publishing Company began its *Lawyers Edition of Supreme Court reports in 1901. The first series, one hundred volumes, contains decisions from the first term of the Court through the October 1955 term. Its second series begins with the October 1956 term and still continues. The Bureau of National Affairs from 1931 has published *United States Law Week. This periodical delivers the full text of the most recent Supreme Court decisions within days of their announcement. Supreme Court decisions also appear on such on-line computer services as *WESTLAW and LEXIS. Electronic versions of bound volumes of Supreme Court decisions starting with the October 1991 term are posted on the Supreme Court Web site (http://www.supremecourtus.gov).

Before bound volumes are published, official decisions appear in three preliminary printed and electronic forms: bench opinions, *slip opinions, and preliminary prints. Print versions govern electronic versions in the event of any discrepancies. Bench opinions are made available immediately on days those opinions are announced by the Court from the bench. They consist of the majority or plurality opinion, any concurring or dissenting opinions, and a syllabus prepared by the Court Reporter’s Office. Bench opinions are distributed in print by the Court’s Public Information Office, and electronically on the Court’s Web site and to subscribers through the Court’s Project Hermes service. Slip opinions are versions distributed several hours (electronically) or days (in print) after an opinion is announced by the Court. Like bench opinions, they consist of the majority or plurality opinion, any concurring or dissenting opinions, and the syllabus. Slip opinions are circulated in print by the Court’s Public Information Office without charge, are sold by the Office of the Superintendent of Documents at the U.S. Government Printing Office, and are distributed electronically on the Court’s Web site. Decisions appear in penultimate form as preliminary prints, soft-cover pamphlets containing opinions and other content that normally appears in bound volumes. The text of slip opinions also appear on the Court’s Web site.

Besides the official sources of Supreme Court opinions, a large number of unofficial print and electronic sources exist from private publishers and academic databases. Fast and accurate availability of the Court’s decisions has helped realize the hope of William Cranch, the second reporter, for an American “code of common law.”

See also reporters, supreme court.

Gerald T. Dunne, “Early Court Reporters,” Yearbook of the Supreme Court Historical Society (1976): 61–72. Craig Joyce, “The Rise of the Supreme Court Reporter: An Institutional Perspective on Marshall Court Ascendancy,” Michigan Law Review 83 (1985): 1291–1391.

Francis Helminski