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SCOTUS Citation Raises Concerns Over Potential 'Link Rot'

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on July 15, 2016 1:53 PM

The recent SCOTUS decision of Utah v. Strieff was notable in at least two ways. First it was noteworthy because of Justice Sotomayor's almost Scalia-esque (in terms of passion, if not form) dissent. Some have called it the Court's "Black Lives Matter" moment.

But the Strieff opinion is also noteworthy because it may be the first time in the Court's history in which a URL-link "shortener" was used in place of the real address. Justice Kagan's separate dissent included a citation to http://goo.gl/3Yq3Nd, and that leaves some worried.

"Saves Space, Looks Nicer"

If you don't want to fill your emails, briefs, or even Supreme Court opinions with long, cumbersome internet addresses, you can use a URL-shortener to trim them down to size. And that's just what Justice Kagan did, cutting a link to an NBC report on unserved Pennsylvania warrants down from 116 characters to just 20.

There are a couple of clear advantages that a shorted hyperlink possesses over its more unwieldy counterpart, as Josh Blackman of Houston College of Law has noted. The first one is just that: length. The original link was more than five times longer than the abbreviated version.

So, the Court purposely availed itself of Google's "goo.gl" citation. Not only does this "save[] space" but it also tracks how many times a person visit a link.

It certainly looks much better. But at what cost?

"Link Rot"

The fact that a shortened link just became part of official record of the Supreme Court has some concerned. Google controls the link and Google is a private party. So what happens if Google decides to change a link? Or worse, to get rid of it altogether?

Links that garner no traffic may fade away into obscurity. There would be little incentive for companies to maintain shortened URLs that no one uses, after all, or for others to keep up websites that go unvisited. This is casually known within the internet community as "link rot" -- when links to older pages leading nowhere.

And it's somewhat concerning that SCOTUS has willingly placed itself in the position of having a citation within an opinion leading to... nothing.

But it's not the first time link rot has made its way into the Supreme Court. Adam Liptak's 2014 piece is illustrative of the problem. According to research, almost half of the links in Supreme Court opinions are broken.

Perhaps Liptak was dead on when he mentioned that the "modern Supreme Court opinion is increasingly built on sand." And silicon.

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