Solving the Supreme Court's link rot problem

A study by Harvard Law School finds that half the URLs in Supreme Court opinions go nowhere, which can put a crimp in the idea of citing precedent. The authors suggest a solution.

Like everyone else, Supreme Court justices, in writing their opinions, have taken to linking to previous opinions and documents posted on the Internet. The only problem is that half of them aren’t there anymore.

A new report from Harvard Law School finds that 49 percent of hyperlinks in Supreme Court opinions no longer point to the correct content. 

The dead links extend to the Supreme Court’s own website, the New York Times reported. And while links in Supreme Court opinions are less likely to work as they get older, there are also some recent broken links. A link in a 2011 opinion by Justice Samuel Alito Jr., the Times noted, goes to a 404 message that begins, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t cite to this webpage … like Justice Alito did… .”

An earlier study released in June by Yale University found similar results. Raizel Liebler and June Liebert, authors of the study’s report, noted that the Supreme Court had “a vast problem with link rot.” Citations, “are the cornerstone upon which judicial opinions and law review articles stand,” the report said, lamenting that “disappearing websites cause serious problems for future legal researchers.”

“Governments should be especially careful when creating new URL schemes to preserve the accessibility of older materials, realizing that such materials may be widely cited,” noted Jonathan Zittrain and Kendra Albert, authors of the Harvard report. 

And it’s not just the Supreme Court – the study found that more than 70 percent of URLs in the Harvard Law Review and other journals fail to go to the original documents.

Dead hyperlinks, known as link rot, are a common problem across the Internet. They can be caused if a website no longer exists or has been reorganized, if the server hosting the link shuts down or moves to a new domain name, or if the document has been moved. Filters and firewalls also can block users from content. Users either cannot connect to a page at all or the link no longer points to the original content. The most common result is the “404/file not found” message. Even permalinks are susceptible if the domain goes silent or switches ownership. 

Zittrain and Albert suggested a links content library as a solution. In their report they noted that the Harvard Library Innovation Lab has created one such library, called Perma, built with the support of a consortium of dozens of law school libraries and non-profit entities such as the Internet Archive and Digital Public Library of America. The library has a distributed architecture and structure. 

“Perma is a caching solution to be used by authors and journal editors in order to integrate the preservation of linked material with the act of citation,” they write.  “Upon direction from a paper author or editor, Perma will retrieve and save the contents of a webpage, returning a permanent link and corresponding citation to the Perma system. When the work is published, in addition to or instead of including a citation to the original URL, the journal or court can use the Perma link, ensuring that even if the original goes down or changes the cache is preserved.”

Liebler and Liebert offer similar recommendations in the Yale report for the Supreme Court, suggesting that the Court archive cited websites on its own website and “as a longer-term solution, the Supreme Court and the Judicial Conference should form partnerships with existing Internet archiving organizations, such as [the Legal Information Preservation Alliance] and the Internet Archive, in order to provide easier access to the Internet resources cited within each court opinion."

Other organizations to study the problem of link rot within the legal field include the Chesapeake Digital Preservation Group. One of its findings in a study of link rot with legal resources in 2012 was that link rot increases over time, with 40 percent of URLs it captured in 2007 succumbing to link rot while all material captured in the first few months of 2012 remained at their original Web addresses. 

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