Courts across the country have been eager to embrace computer-driven innovations in order to increase efficiency and cut down on costs. One aspect of courtroom procedure that takes considerable time and resources, however, has changed little through the years: the writing of judicial opinions. However, now, with the meteoric growth of Twitter, a social networking and so-called “microblogging” service, courts are taking advantage of a new method of delivering their opinions that has significantly increased the deliverance of appellate verdicts.
The U.S. District Court of New Mexico was the first to replace its traditional publishing of opinions with a Twitter feed, noting that the service was completely free and more easily accessible by the public. Other benefits became quickly apparent: Because Twitter restricts entries to 140 characters, judges are forces to convey the main point of their decision concisely and directly. And considering the time it takes to craft 140 characters, as opposed to opinions that can sometimes stretch for more than 50 pages, judges have had more time to hear and decide cases.
For example, the New Mexico District Court recently heard a case in which an individual convicted of narcotics possession claimed his right to privacy was violated when police photographed the drugs through his car window while his vehicle was parked at a bowling alley. Reporting its decision of Granderson v. Town of Mountainair, 2010 Fed. TWITTER 273 (D.N.M. 2010), the majority, loggged in as @D.N.M.fedcourt, wrote: “Dfendnt hd no legitimit xpect8ion of privcy; cops can phtograf insde car when prked in pblic. Not unreasnble srch & seizr = con10ts clrly visble thru windo 2 passrsby.”
Similarly, the Supreme Court of Iowa, deciding a dispute between a development company and a local environmental-protection group, used Twitter to express its findings that the company had violated state law, posting at @IASupCt: “Lake George Shoreline Est8s Co. illgly hid evdnce th@ erosion frm constrctn wld dstry habit@ & faild 2 file ncssary paprwrk 4 permit. Had 2 dsclose impax under st8 lw.” Save Our Waters Committee v. Lake George Shoreline Estates Co., 2010 Iowa S. Ct. TWITTER 375 (2010).
The changes have been met with wide approval from both litigants and their lawyers. Leonard Prock, whose case was recently decided in merely 27 characters by the U.S. District Court of Missouri, Eastern District, said that Twitter made it easier to be notified that a decision in his case had been made.
“After my attorneys argued the case, I just subscribed to the court’s Twitter feed,” he said. “A few days later, the decision just popped up right on my page; I read it off my iPhone.” Prock also said that the Twitter format made the decision more intelligible to him, saving him money on fees to an attorney to read the opinion and explain the outcome.
“I was obviously disappointed that we didn’t win, but at least I didn’t have to give my attorneys another thousand bucks just to tell me that I lost,” he said. “The Twitter post told me everything I needed to know in one sentence.”
Although that creates the potential that attorneys may lose a little business, most attorneys say they wholly approve of the new format.
“The time I spend on legal research has been cut by at ninety percent,” said James Jollson, an attorney at Kansas City firm Perry, Wright & Elders LLP. “I don’t have to wade through pages and pages of blathering dicta just to find where the judge has buried the actual holding. It takes the guesswork and legal analysis out of it.” That further makes Twitter opinions significantly easier to cite, other attorneys noted.
Judges on courts that have implemented Twitter opinions say they can spend more time hearing cases and less time writing lengthy treatises that require extensive citation. In fact, courts that utilize Twitter reporting have mostly gotten rid of clerks that have graduated from top law schools, replacing them with preteens who work part-time for minimum wage after school. “Johnny Thompson is my best clerk, and he’s only 11 years old,” noted Justice Warner Michaels of the Oregon Supreme Court. “He knows all the cutting-edge space-saving abbreviations, and his placement of emoticons is uncommonly shrewd.”
As the trend continues to spread, some courts are looking for ways to further incorporate Twitter into routine procedure. The U.S. District Court of Vermont, for example, recently instituted a policy requiring attorneys to file their briefs through Twitter. “It’s obviously a lot harder to make multiple pleadings in 140 characters,” said Carter Poole, an appellate litigator in Cambridgeport. “But I can file seven briefs in one day and still make my 2 p.m. tee time. Can’t argue with that.”