Brandy Hough, MJLST Staffer
If you thought your elementary school’s grueling cursive curriculum was all for naught, you’re sadly mistaken. The University of Minnesota, in partnership with Michigan State University, launched a crowdsourcing project this month to transcribe Supreme Court justices’ handwritten conference notes. The project, dubbed SCOTUS Notes, engages “citizen archivists” to decipher and transcribe the justices’ notes, with the goal of making them broadly accessible in an electronic and legible format. If you can spot a cursive Z from a mile away, you might just help transcribe history.
Researchers at the two universities received a three-year federal grant from the National Science Foundation to fund the project, which is hosted on Zooniverse, a large-scale platform for “people-powered research.” The researchers hope that crowdsourcing the work will lead to more efficient and accurate results than could be achieved by staff researchers alone. Project co-director Tim Johnson explains that ten people independently transcribe each page, which allows researchers “to obtain high level agreement scores for every word transcribed—even when the words are really difficult to determine.” At the time of writing, 876 volunteers have registered since the project’s February 13 launch date. You can monitor the project’s progress in real time on the SCOTUS Notes Zooniverse page.
In its current phase, SCOTUS Notes aims to harness its volunteer power to transcribe 12,600 pages of conference notes taken by Justices Harry A. Blackmun and William J. Brennan related to cases decided between 1959 and 1994. These notes provide valuable insights into judicial decision-making at our nation’s highest level. As explained on the SCOTUS Notes blog:
“U.S. Supreme Court justices cast votes in complete secrecy during weekly meetings, which only justices are allowed to attend. During these meetings, the justices discuss, deliberate, and make initial decisions on cases they have heard–many of which address the most important legal and policy issues in the U.S.. The written notes the justices themselves take during these meetings provide the only record of what was said and by whom.”
Project co-director Tim Johnson adds “I think law students will find that ‘understanding how the sausage is made’ is integral to understanding how and why SCOTUS makes the decisions it does. Without knowing what happens behind the scenes it is hard to really hard to have a fully accurate picture.”
In the future, the researchers plan to engage volunteers to transcribe notes of Justices Powell, Douglas, Marshall, Rehnquist and Warren. Upon completion of the project, scotusnotes.org will provide public access to images of the original pages as well as the transcriptions.
For more information or to get involved with the project, visit the SCOTUS Notes page at https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/zooniverse/scotus-notes-behind-the-scenes-at-supreme-court-conference.