Reporters, Supreme Court Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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 ReportsUnited States Reports[United States Reports], the Court’s official publication. Reporters also keep rough drafts of the justices’ decisions secret from the public until publication. If a copy of the draft opinion leaked before finalization, the effects could harm the litigants or even society at large.

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.

Publishing the Court’s Decisions

A legal entrepreneur, Philadelphia lawyer Alexander J. Dallas,Dallas, Alexander J. published the first comprehensive volume of U.S. law reports in 1790. Dallas published the first United States Reports for profit and without a single decision of the new nation’s highest court. The book contained Pennsylvania decisions dating from 1754. Justices provided Dallas with written decisions to the extent that they existed; justices were not required to submit their decisions in writing. For oral decisions, Dallas relied on notes taken by him or others in attendance. He published the Court’s opinions from 1790 until 1800. When the Court moved from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800, a District of Columbia judge, William Cranch, became the unofficial reporter. He published the Court’s decisions until 1815.

Congress officially created the Court reporter’s office in 1816. The Court then appointed attorney Henry WheatonWheaton, Henry as its first official reporter in 1817. A bitterly contested lawsuit erupted between Wheaton and Richard Peters,Peters, Richard Wheaton’s successor, over Peters’s reissuing the volumes of Court decisions originally published by Wheaton. Peters planned to publish Wheaton’s twenty-five volumes of reports in a six-volume digest for less than a third of the price of the originals. Wheaton contended the action violated his copyrightCopyright and thus threatened the market for his volumes.

In Wheaton v. Peters[case]Wheaton v. Peters[Wheaton v. Peters]Copyright;Wheaton v. Peters[Wheaton v. Peters] (1834), the first decision on copyright law, the Court held its opinions were in the public domain. Protection applied only to the reporter’s commentaries and other notes. It was not until 1834 that the Court even required the filing of opinions. The printed record of the Court began in 1837. From 1863 to 1871, two records of opinions, a printed version and a manuscript version, coexisted.

Greater Access

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 copyrightCopyright;Wheaton v. Peters[Wheaton v. Peters] holders, publishers in various states raced to publish less expensive editions for use by lawyers, judges, and other citizens. The Court was playing an ever-greater role in shaping the laws of the growing country. Contemporaries of the early reporters sometimes criticized them for publishing the opinions too slowly and without careful editing.

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 OttoOtto, William Tod. Private printers published the reports until 1921 when the Government Printing Office took over the job.

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.

Further Reading
  • 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

Cranch, William

Dallas, Alexander J.

Davis, Bancroft

Knaebel, Ernest

Lind, Henry Curtis

Otto, William T.

Peters, Richard

Putzel, Henry, Jr.

Reporting of opinions

Supreme Court Reporter

United States Reports

Wallace, John W.

Wheaton, Henry

Categories: History Content