Judges and Their Papers

November
2013
Kathryn A. Watts

Who should own a federal judge’s papers? This question has rarely been asked. Instead, it has generally been accepted that the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal judges own their working papers, which include papers created by judges relating to their official duties, such as internal draft opinions, confidential vote sheets, and case-related correspondence. This longstanding tradition of private ownership has led to tremendous inconsistency. For example, Justice Thurgood Marshall’s papers were released just two years after he left the bench, revealing behind-the-scenes details about major cases involving issues such as abortion and flag burning. In contrast, Justice David Souter’s papers will remain closed until the fiftieth anniversary of his retirement, and substantial portions of Justice Byron White’s papers, including files relating to the landmark case of Miranda v. Arizona, were shredded. In addition, many collections of lower federal court judges’ papers have been scattered in the hands of judges’ families. Notably, this private ownership model has persisted despite the fact that our country’s treatment of presidential records shifted from private to public ownership through the Presidential Records Act of 1978. Furthermore, private ownership of judicial papers has endured even though it has proven ill-equipped to balance the many competing interests at stake, ranging from calls for governmental accountability and transparency on the one hand, to the judiciary’s independence, collegiality, confidentiality, and integrity on the other.

This Article is the first to give significant attention to the question of who should own federal judges’ working papers and what should happen to the papers once a judge leaves the bench. Upon the thirty-fifth anniversary of the enactment of the Presidential Records Act, this Article argues that judges’ working papers should be treated as governmental property—just as presidential papers are. Although there are important differences between the roles of president and judge, none of the differences suggest that judicial papers should be treated as a species of private property. Rather than counseling in favor of private ownership, the unique position of federal judges, including the judiciary’s independence in our constitutional design, suggests the advisability of crafting rules that speak to reasonable access to and disposition of judicial papers. Ultimately, this Article—giving renewed attention to a long-forgotten 1977 governmental study commissioned by Congress—argues that Congress should declare judicial papers public property and should empower the judiciary to promulgate rules implementing the shift to public ownership. These would include, for example, rules governing the timing of public release of judicial papers. By involving the judiciary in implementing the shift to public ownership, Congress would enhance the likelihood of judicial cooperation, mitigate separation of powers concerns, and enable the judiciary to safeguard judicial independence, collegiality, confidentiality, and integrity.

This article appears in the November 2013 Issue: Volume 88, Number 5