A guide to SCOTUS Search

Guide version 1.0 — February 18, 2015

Last Wednesday I posted an intro note to SCOTUS Search: the free, searchable online database of United States Supreme Court oral argument transcripts that Victoria Kwan and I just launched in beta. The post recounted the development of the idea behind SCOTUS Search, as well as some plans for the project going forward.

Now that the site has seen some traffic (which is extremely exciting!), I figured it would be worthwhile to put together a short guide with some tips on how to best use the site, some caution about its exhaustiveness, and various other marginalia. This post is likely to be updated over time as more things come to mind.

Before I say anything else, though: thank you so much for checking it out! This is a project Victoria and I have been working on, on and off, for the better part of a year now, so it’s really gratifying to see people making use of the site and tweeting out their favorite search results and obscure judicial references. I can’t wait to see what legal writers, academics, journalists, and Court-watchers do with this data going forward.

So, in no particular order:

  • The first thing I must emphasize again, as I did in the intro post (and as is displayed prominently on the SCOTUS Search home page), is that SCOTUS Search is still in beta. What does this mean in practice? A lot of things, actually:
    1. The database of oral argument transcripts is neither exhaustive nor 100% error-free. I don’t mean this to be alarming in any way, but just as a fair warning. As Oyez notes, the Supreme Court only “installed an audio recording system in 1955.” (You can see a visual representation of this lack of transcripts prior to 1955 in the graph displayed on the SCOTUS Search home page.) While Oyez has compiled a truly astounding library of transcripts, there are still many blank cases from 1955 onward that we have therefore been unable to include in SCOTUS Search — as our only sources for transcripts so far are Oyez and the Supreme Court itself. Moreover, as the above link makes clear, the official recordings have endured various hiccups over the subsequent decades that had an impact on transcribers’ ability to ensure perfect quality at times.
    2. For example, in many cases, justices and attorneys are not identified by name in the transcripts and are referred to, instead, as “Unidentified Justice” or “Unknown Speaker.” In other cases, the same speaker is identified differently across cases: “Justice Scalia” and “Justice Antonin Scalia,” for example. Elsewhere, we found examples of misidentification, as when John Roberts was referred to in one transcript as “Chief Justice John Roberts” even though the case was argued prior to his appointment in OT 2005 and Roberts was actually appearing as an attorney arguing before the Supreme Court at the time. Finally, there are also straight-up typos, as pointed out here and here, for example. (Speaking of which…please let us know whenever you find any errors!)
    3. We have attempted to correct as many of these ambiguities and errors as possible. But given the scale of the data, we expect to find hundreds or even thousands of similar examples in various other cases. In the near future, I hope to add an “error correction” form so that registered users can submit changes to transcripts, which we can then review and approve to ensure high accuracy.
  • A lot of you who visited via a link in the Twitter mobile app probably already noticed this, but…SCOTUS Search does not currently play nice with mobile. (Not sure about tablets, as neither Victoria nor I own an iPad and haven’t tested on one yet.) I absolutely plan to add mobile functionality, but I don’t have a specific ETA just yet.
  • There are a lot of “search type” options — eight, to be precise. All of them are case-insensitive: your capitalization, or lack thereof, doesn’t matter at all. But they are super sensitive to spelling, typos, spaces, and so on. E.g. A search for “Superman” ≠ “Super man”. This is another weakness I plan on addressing in the future. Anyway, for most people’s purposes, the three most useful search types will be:
    1. Oral argument: Exact phrase. This search type works exactly as advertised: for example, typing “in my underwear” (without quotes!) will bring you to the sole result for a very confusing, and confused, rumination on bullying and the frailty of human memory by Justice Stephen Breyer. As of today (2/18/2015), using quotation marks with this search type will only return results that actually include quotation marks in the transcript text. Assuming that’s not what you’re looking for, don’t use quotation marks when selecting the “Oral argument: Exact phrase” search type.
    2. Oral argument: All search words. This is very similar to the above search type, except the words in the phrase don’t have to be adjacent to each other in the transcript text. If you type, “baseball hockey,” for example, the results will return all statements containing both words, whether or not they were said immediately consecutively.
    3. Oral argument: Any search words. This will return any statement containing any of the words in the search box.
  • Sign up as a user! You don’t have to do it to use SCOTUS Search, but here are some of the benefits:
    1. It’s free.
    2. You get to write notes on individual cases and statements, as well as favoriting them (for bookmarking purposes). You can even decide whether to make your notes private (viewable only to yourself, which is the default) or public (which can be viewed by any other registered users), and you can look at other users’ public notes as well.
    3. You can export the case titles and metadata of search results (to CSV or XLS format), instead of simply viewing them on the site.
    4. You can save all your searches and set your default search type.
    5. You can receive email alerts any time a case transcript is added or updated (and, as an added bonus, the emails let you know when SCOTUS Map — our sister project — has been updated too).
    6. You get to set your own time zone preferences! Which is, I guess, pretty cool.

Thanks again for checking it out!

Jay

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About Jay Pinho

Jay is a data journalist and political junkie. He currently writes about domestic politics, foreign affairs, and journalism and continues to make painstakingly slow progress in amateur photography. He would very much like you to check out SCOTUSMap.com and SCOTUSSearch.com if you have the chance.

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