Setting a precedent
This week, we spent some time with WikiProject U.S. Supreme Court Cases. The project was started in October 2004 after an earlier attempt in July. Today, the project is home to 6 pieces of Featured material and 38 Good Articles. A full plate of articles that still need improvement gives the project a relative WikiWork of 4.805. The project maintains a to-do list, a collection of resources, a style guide, some user-created reports, and a page to watched automated article alerts. We interviewed BD2412 and agradman.
- What motivated you to join WikiProject U.S. Supreme Court Cases? Do you have any educational or professional experience in law?
- BD2412: I am an attorney, and like most attorneys I was inundated with Supreme Court cases in law school. In fact, I started writing about these cases because I had to read them and write summaries about them anyway, so I figured, why not share the fruits of my efforts with the world?
- agradman: Ditto to what BD2412 said, and let me add: Wikipedia had the potential to be a great resource for law students, as a study guide. When you're a law student, you get assigned a casebook for each class. The book contains the text of many cases followed by some material added by the editors – bits of scholarship, questions for class discussion, etc. Many students have trouble learning from these. They are very dry and a little opaque. And so students go out and buy study guides (which are called hornbooks in our field). Well, thanks to the hard work of the people from this Wikiproject (and from WP:Law, I think Wikipedia is now at the point where people don't need to buy hornbooks anymore. This isn't just a matter of saving money. It means that students will be putting their own notes online, and sharing with others. That's a great contribution to law school, which has famously been a place where people are very competitive and do not like to share or collaborate.
- Do you tend to focus on historical cases or recent decisions? Are some time periods better covered than others? What can be done to fill holes in Wikipedia's coverage?
- BD2412: I began with cases that were covered in my classes, which tended to be a mix of old and new.
- agradman: Ditto to what BD2412 said. The people who contribute to these cases are by and large law students (as I was, two years ago, when I made the bulk of my contributions), and so I think you will see coverage following the curriculum of law school classes. I would say that we've gotten to the point now where the coverage is pretty thorough in that regard. See Lists_of_United_States_Supreme_Court_cases_by_volume.
- Do articles go through significant changes when a case moves from lower courts to the Supreme Court? How does the project handle existing articles about cases that end up being grouped together by the Supreme Court?
- BD2412: I think we generally don't write articles on cases until they reach the Supreme Court. One interesting facet of Supreme Court jurisprudence is that it is rare for cases that receive substantial attention at the trial court level – often criminal cases involving celebrities or bizarre crimes – to reach that level of appeal.
- agradman: Ditto what BD2412 said. This sometimes happens [i.e., WP having an article for a case BEFORE it reaches the supreme court], but I can only think of one example offhand – Morse v. Frederick, to which I was a contributor. If you look at my answer to the next question, you will see why in my opinion this can be a headache and it is NOT worth attempting to give coverage to the various lower courts. True, it may be that the lower court opinions describe additional facts than the Supreme Court does, and that this extra info makes for a richer wikipedia article, but the thing is, lawyers are not interested in these details about what ACTUALLY happened. We are interested in what the Supreme Court thought was IMPORTANT ENOUGH to mention as a fact that supported its opinion. Maybe that separates us from the general public.
- The decisions released by the Supreme Court justices are often very complicated. How do the project's members sort it all out and simplify it for the average reader? How are concurring and dissenting opinions treated?
- BD2412: Ideally, concurring and dissenting opinions should be given some sectional treatment in the article.
- agradman: Regarding the "average reader" question, I must be honest and say we don't tend to care. Any legal case is going to assume that the reader understands a large number of abstract concepts (jurisdiction, stage of review, etc), and since any given case is only to be "about" one or two of those concepts, it is going to make things very messy to have to explain the other concepts within the article about the case. So I don't know what to say to the average reader! As far as concurrences and dissents, those are treated straighforwardly – you just say what they say – it is not really an issue that we have trouble with, example Roe v Wade. In my opinion, what is actually harder to treat is the description of everything within the case that is NOT the legal opinion of the judge. This include the judge's description of the facts of the case, his description of the lower courts' opinions, etc. Let me give you a very simple example: Roe v. Wade. (Another example might be Morse v. Frederick.) If you read the Roe article, you might think that the text of the court's decision picks up with the stuff under the heading, "Supreme Court decision". In fact, the text of the court's decision also discusses the material that appears in the earlier sections of the WP article, under the "Background" and "Before the Supreme Court" headings. It is just a typical thing in judicial opinions that, before stating the "opinion", the court will give some of the prior history of the case. You may think this is pedantic of me to mention, but here is the challenge: we are writing a Wikipedia article about a document (in this example, the case of Roe v. Wade), but we are also using that document as our source for the facts described within that document (in this example, the prior history of Roe v. Wade before it reached the supreme court). In my opinion, WP articles about legal opinions are the only place on WP where we can get away with that sort of shenanigan. It is probably contrary to WP policies, but god save us if someone should put their foot down and tell us we can't do that anymore – we'd never get any work done. Technically, we could find other sources – such a the opinions of the lower courts – but within the legal community those sources tend to be deprecated in comparison to the text of the Supreme Court opinion. No one wants to hear what they say. The fact is, even if the supreme court gets it wrong, we care more about what they THOUGHT the facts were than what the facts ACTUALLY were. And that is a distinction that is way too much trouble to make in our WP articles.
- Does your project's work ever overlap with the WikiProjects covering politics, business, or social issues? Is there much cooperation with those other projects? What can be done to improve communication and coordination between WikiProjects?
- agradman: Almost all of us also belong to WP:Law. Obviously that project also contains lawyers from non-US. But we all work together very well, and I think the talk page at WP:Law tends to be a little more active.
- Considering the Supreme Court's rules regarding photographing and recording, how are articles about Supreme Court cases illustrated? What kinds of images could be added to these articles?
- BD2412: This depends on the kind of case. For patent cases, images of the technology involved; criminal procedure cases, images of the conduct under review (pat-down searches, surveillance, shackling, and so forth).
- agradman: I must confess, as a lawyer I don't give much thought to the question of improving our legal coverage for the sake of non-legal audiences (which I understand is the gist of your question). Appropriate images I think are going to be hard to come by. However, as a general rule, you can always insert a photo of the judge who wrote the case.
- Are there any important cases coming up soon that could use some attention? How can editors who do not have formal training in law contribute to the articles about these cases?
- BD2412: There are always important cases coming up, but perhaps the most important thing editors can do is to write about the decisions that are less high profile.
- agradman: I think that by and large, the heavy lifting in these article needs to be done by legally trained people. However, offhand I suppose that anyone, regardless of their training, could create stubs for old supreme court cases, relying on the redlinks at Lists of United States Supreme Court cases by volume. I believe that our wikiproject has templates for creating new articles. As far as content, you can get some minimal content for the article using Google Scholar (i.e., if you see how a case is cited in OTHER cases, that will often contain a summary of the case.)
- Anything else you'd like to add?
- agradman: A shout-out needs to go to MZMcBride, who is responsible for putting together the Lists of United States Supreme Court cases by volume. He had great foresight for putting this together a long time ago. It became an index to our project as well as a way for us to assess our own progress. I think that readers of the Signpost article should be encouraged to browse through this. Also, MZMcBride may be able to calculate an estimate of the percentage of these articles that have been written to date, which will be an interesting statistic for the article.
Next week, we'll compose a delightful report. Until then, check out the classics in the archive.
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