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Louis D. Brandeis School of Law Law Library

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Supreme Court Briefs

by Erin Gow on 2017-11-13T08:00:00-05:00
Text by Librarian Scott Campbell, photos by Associate Director Kurt Metzmeier

One of the Law Library’s rarest collections takes up half of a floor in the library, yet few users know of its existence. In 1924, while he was on the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis arranged for the library to receive copies of the briefs submitted in cases before the Court. It is now 93 years later and we continue to receive them, and are one of only ten libraries that do so.

While computerized research and microfilm have made access to briefs easier than ever before, there are still advantages to our collection. West and Lexis’s collections of briefs do not go back as far as ours, and they are not as complete. Also, our briefs have actually been in the hands of the justices and their clerks, and sometimes include notes and highlighted sections that illuminate the parts of the briefs that were considered to be useful.

We usually get a large shipment of briefs sent to us with in a month or two after the end of the term.

boxes of Supreme Court briefs   Supreme Court briefs in shipping box

The briefs are then unpacked and transferred to a processing room in the basement, where they take up nearly all of the available shelf space.

Supreme Court briefs in the basement

The briefs are then arranged in docket number order and separated into approximately three inch volumes. We get briefs for over 1,400 cases each year. The Court denies review for most cases, and we can often fit the briefs of up to ten of those cases in one volume. However, once the Court grants certiorari to a case, the number of briefs quickly multiply. People and organizations not even connected to the case will submit amicus briefs to try to sway the Court to one side or the other. If the case if particularly controversial, the number of briefs can fill up 3 to 5 volumes.

Supreme Court briefs related to one case

Photo of all the briefs filed in a single case: Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

Once all of the briefs are sorted in volumes, they are sent to a bindery in northern Indiana. When the volumes come back from the bindery (and by this point, it will be over a year since the case was decided) they are stored in the library’s attic. Every year, about 300 volumes are added to the collection. They take up one entire half of the attic, and are now starting to infiltrate the other half.

Supreme Court briefs in the attic

The Supreme Court has announced that starting this November, it is going to start requiring litigants to submit electronic copies of their briefs. Does this mean that we will stop receiving them? Probably not for a few years. Courts are extremely conservative when it comes to adopting technology, and the Supreme Court is the most conservative of them all. They are still requiring litigants to submit paper copies as well, and the paper copies will be considered to be the official versions. So, Justice Brandeis’s bequest will continue to grow for the time being.

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