Employees of the Supreme Court responsible for publishing and disseminating decisions of the justices in an accurate, timely, and uniform manner.
Although unheralded and little known except to legal historians, Supreme Court reporters provide access to the judicial opinions that are the primary source of law in the U.S. system of justice. Reporters are the conduits through which the Court disseminates its opinions on the spirit and letter of the law.
On a day-to-day basis, reporters provide draft opinions and other working documents that the justices employ in their decision-making process. Other duties include editing the Court’s opinions before publication. The reporters also add the preface or headnote and record how the justices voted. They supervise printing of the opinions in United States Reports
When the first U.S. Congress established the federal judiciary in 1789, neither the legislators nor the justices envisioned the need for a Court reporter. Lawyers had local court decisions in manuscript form and printed English law books, which included the decisions of the English common-law courts. As a practical matter, the Court did not have any decisions to disseminate when it began its work in New York City in 1790. It was not until 1816 that the Court appointed its first official reporter.
A legal entrepreneur, Philadelphia lawyer Alexander J. Dallas,
Congress officially created the Court reporter’s office in 1816. The Court then appointed attorney Henry Wheaton
In Wheaton v. Peters
The Court’s decision in Wheaton v. Peters was a milestone in the history of legal publishing. Where case reports had once been scarce because of the high prices charged by copyright
Early reporters summarized case facts, prepared the preface or headnote to the opinion, transcribed the arguments of counsel, and provided useful indexes to the volumes they edited. Nineteenth century reports that cited the reporter by name gave the impression the reporter was more important than the justices. The shift to identifying reports by state name diminished visibility of the reporter. In 1874 Congress appropriated funds for publishing the Court’s opinions under government auspices. The first anonymous reporter was William Tod Otto
The official Court reporter, United States Reports, includes a brief preface explaining the decision or points of law. Because of the slow publication schedule for this report, many lawyers rely on private companies that publish and annotate official Court decisions. Major publishers include West Publishing Company, Lawyers Cooperative Company, and the National Bureau of Affairs. The Court’s opinions are immediately entered into commercial on-line databases such as WESTLAW and LEXIS. United States Law Week publishes the full text of Court decisions within days.
Court reporting has changed since Dallas sought his fortune as a publisher of Court decisions. The justices write their own decisions and do not rely on others to record their opinions and decide what is important. That is the job of the justices. Rather than legal entrepreneurs, the anonymous reporters are employees of the Court. New information technologies, especially the Internet and CD-ROMS, make access to the justices’ opinions easier for other judges, lawyers, and citizens. In a society ruled by law, the reporter’s function remains an important one.
Brenner, Susan W. Precedent Inflation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1992. Domnarski, William. In the Opinion of the Court. Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Surrency, Erwin C. A History of American Law Publishing. New York: Oceana, 1990.
Black, Jeremiah S.
Butler, Charles Henry
Clerk of the Court
Dallas, Alexander J.
Lind, Henry Curtis
Otto, William T.
Putzel, Henry, Jr.
Reporting of opinions
Supreme Court Reporter
United States Reports
Wallace, John W.