WASHINGTON (AP) — People trying to read a big Supreme Court ruling got more suspense than they bargained for.
When the high court announced Monday that a landmark civil rights law protects gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in employment, a glitch on the court’s website meant many people trying to see the decision initially saw only a single page.
It took about an hour, the court said, for staff to fix the problem and post the 172-page decision and another decision the justices issued in a case involving a natural gas pipeline that would pass under the Appalachian Trail.
The gaffe on one of the court’s most highly-watched decisions comes as the justices are expected to issue their rulings in the coming weeks in a series of high profile cases. They include opinions about the Trump administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a Louisiana abortion case and subpoenas for Trump’s financial records. It’s not the first time technology has tripped up the court’s decision announcements.
Supreme Court public information officer Kathleen L. Arberg said in a statement that the court’s website “experienced a partial communications failure.”
“Our website didn’t crash – but it could not receive or reply to outside requests for data in the normal timeframe until the Court’s IT department was able to fix the problem,” she said.
That meant that while at least some people were able to download the full decision immediately, others were stuck in a technological traffic jam trying to get it.
Arberg said the department is “exploring the cause” of the problem but that it did not have to do with the decision’s length.
The difficulty some had getting the decision was evident on the website SCOTUSblog, which covers the court and has a live blog on decision days. “Taking some time to load,” posted contributor Amy Howe at 10 a.m. EDT as the decision was released. Contributor Mark Walsh followed with: “Same for me on slow loading. ARRGH!”
Gerald Bostock, whose case was one of those before the court, was himself in a state of suspense as a result. Bostock, a former employee of Clayton County in Georgia who sued after being fired in 2013, claiming he was fired because he was gay, was watching SCOTUSblog.
“Finally, somebody posted that they could see the first sentence. And when I read that, I, I went into shock…I was like, this has to be good,” he said.
Those that could see just one page of text were seeing not the decision itself but of a summary that precedes the actual decision. Text on the court’s website made clear that Justice Neil Gorsuch was the opinion’s author. And the single page did indicate how the justices had ruled: that an “employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII” of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ruling was 6-3, with Gorsuch and Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court’s liberal members.
Normally when the court announces decisions, the justices take the bench and the majority opinion’s author reads a summary of the decision from the bench. As the justice begins reading, reporters are given a physical copy of the full decision in the court’s press room and can begin to get it out to readers. A copy is posted on the court’s website. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the court has since late March only been releasing decisions electronically, on its website. The justices haven’t been going to the courtroom and reporters log on to read the decisions. In addition, the justices heard arguments in 10 cases by telephone in May.
Previously, in late March, the court had difficulty posting a different opinion because of a corrupt file. But the case, which involved cleanup from an oil spill, was a much lower profile decision. The court said at the time it would email reporters who regularly cover the court a copy of a decision if there was difficulty posting it. That happened Monday, but because of the court’s computer issues it took about 25 minutes.
The court’s difficulties Monday were reminiscent of issues in 2012 when the Supreme Court announced its decision upholding the Affordable Care Act. At the time, the court’s website crashed because of the interest and so a decision wasn’t immediately available there. Reporters in the press room, however, had physical copies and were able to get the news out.
Associated Press writer Alex Sanz in Atlanta contributed to this report.