Josh Rothman writes at the Boston Globe's Brainiac blog:
Everyone knows that Google is changing the way college kids write their term papers. What's less obvious is that it's also changing the way that judges write their opinions -- even America's most august judges, those on the Supreme Court. In an absolutely fascinating article in the Virginia Law Review, "Confronting Supreme Court Fact Finding," Allison Orr Larsen, a law professor at William & Mary, shows just how prevalent online research is at the Supreme Court. "In-house research," she argues, much of it done online, is changing the way America's highest court works, and not for the better.
All legal cases, Larsen points out, rest to some degree on facts, and, traditionally, the courts have relied upon what's called the "adversary system" to deal with them. Either side can introduce factual evidence into argument; if the other side thinks the facts are wrong, they can dispute them in court. Judges try to work with facts which have been vetted by both sides. Occasionally extra research might seem warranted, as when Harry Blackmun camped out at the Mayo Clinic Library, doing research for Roe v. Wade. By and large, though, judges stick to the facts cited in the briefs, because they're open to criticism from all parties.
All that is changing, though, because the web puts so much information right at the judge's fingertips. Now, Supreme Court justices spend time Googling around, looking for facts to support their opinions. Around half of the facts cited in a typical Supreme Court brief now come, Larsen writes, "from sources that are not strictly 'legal.'"