Posted on December 17, 2014 by Richard Lazarus
Last spring, as the Washington Post reported, I caught Justice Scalia in an embarrassing blunder that prompted the Justice to revise overnight the version of his dissenting opinion in EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, L.P. posted on the Supreme Court’s website. Scalia’s stumble? In his zeal to condemn EPA for what the Justice plainly considered to be an outrageous construction of Clean Air Act language in EME Homer, he somehow managed to get completely backwards what EPA had argued in Whitman v. American Trucking Ass’n. And as the environmental law blogosphere cheerily trumpeted, what made the mistake especially “cringeworthy” was that Scalia himself had written the Court’s opinion in Whitman, so one was hard-pressed to blame just his law clerk. (On the other hand, here at Harvard Law School, I was very much hoping it was not a Harvard clerk.)
However, what most fascinated me about the entire episode was not Scalia’s initial mistake, but the Court’s procedures for correction. The only reason the public knew about this particular correction was because Justice Scalia’s initial error had been so widely publicized, which was what in turn led me and others to spot the correction and publicize that as well. Otherwise, the correction was made entirely without the Court itself providing any notice. The slip opinion that appeared on the Court’s website was simply different from the one appearing the very next morning.
I was likely more focused on the Court’s process for correction because at that very moment, I had just completed a law review article on the Court’s longstanding, but wholly unappreciated, practice of revising slip opinions in just this kind of clandestine manner. And, not just dissenting opinions as in EME Homer, but also majority opinions of the Court. The Court has literally always done this sort of thing, although no one had ever called them out on it.
I first became aware of the practice as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice in 1987 when, at EPA’s prompting, we urged the Court to correct a “mistake” in its original slip opinion in International Paper Co. v. Ouellette, a significant Clean Water Act case, because of EPA’s concern that certain language in that opinion mischaracterized the role of citizen suits. At our client’s urging, my then-boss, the Solicitor General, formally notified the Court of this “formal error” and the Court changed the language, precisely as we recommended, to eliminate the issue. As a result, the language appearing several years later in the bound volume of the U.S. Reports differed substantively from the original slip opinion language. No notice of this change was given, including to any of the parties in the case. The U.S. had participated as an amicus.
When this happened in 1987, I vowed someday to write on the topic. It took me only about 27 years to do so, and the upshot appeared a few days ago in a lengthy article published in the December 2014 issue of the Harvard Law Review. The article undertakes a full look at the Court’s practice, extending back to its earliest days until the present. (For example, Chief Justice Roger Taney added 18 pages to his opinion for the Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857, after the original opinion announcement.)
In my partial defense, not only did the necessary archival research require significant work over an extended time period, but the topic invariably took a backseat to other, seemingly more pressing, topics on which I was engaged. In all events, the final article is now available here, and includes discussion of EME Homer, International Paper Company, and other environmental cases.