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The Supreme Court Has a Serious Case of Link Rot

Supreme Court opinions are lasting precedents that determine what is lawful and what is not. They keep the government in check and protect citizens from unconstitutional, unfair rules. But in the modern age, accessing the methodology behind those decisions can be difficult. According to a new study reported on by The New York Times, 49 percent of hyperlinks in Supreme Court decisions no longer work.

Before the internet made information accessible with a click of a button, judges referenced static sources, like books with page numbers. Those citations made it easy for lawyers and scholars to access and understand the reasoning behind the court’s decision.

Since 1996, the court has referenced internet resources 555 times. The internet isn’t permanent, though, and those web pages can simply disappear. It’s a phenomenon known as ‘link rot,’ and its implications are troubling.

“Things are readily accessible, until they aren’t,” said study author Jonathan Zittrain in the New York Times article. “Often the footnotes and citations are where the action is.”

The examples of broken links are abundant and can sometimes be amusing, like this example referenced in the article.

A link in a 2011 Supreme Court opinion about violent video games by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. now leads to a mischievous error message.

“Aren’t you glad you didn’t cite to this Web page?” it asks. “If you had, like Justice Alito did, the original content would have long since disappeared and someone else might have come along and purchased the domain in order to make a comment about the transience of linked information in the Internet age.”

The problem of link rot isn’t being universally ignored. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco maintains an archive of PDF versions of every website cited, or as they call them, “webcites.”

The study authors have what they consider an even better solution, perma.cc, which creates permanent, archived versions of websites. The website is currently operating a beta version, but will be open to all users soon.

By: Avery Kleinman
Beth Daley Impact Fellow, POGO

Avery Kleinman Avery Kleinman is the Beth Daley Impact Fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Government Accountability

Related Content: Miscellaneous

Authors: Avery Kleinman

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