The Trouble with Amicus Facts
63 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2014 Last revised: 9 Dec 2014
Date Written: December 8, 2014
The number of amicus curiae briefs filed at the Supreme Court is at an all-time high. Most observers, and even some of the Justices, believe that the best of these briefs are filed to supplement the Court’s understanding of facts. Supreme Court decisions quite often turn on generalized facts about the way the world works (Do violent video games harm children? Is a partial birth abortion ever medically necessary?) and to answer these questions the Justices are hungry for more information than the parties and the record can provide. The consensus is that amicus briefs helpfully add factual expertise to the Court’s decision-making.
The goal of this article is to chip away at that conventional wisdom. The trouble with amicus facts, I argue, is that today anyone can claim to be a factual expert. With the Internet, factual information is easily found and cheaply manufactured. Moreover, the amicus curiae has evolved significantly from its origin as an impartial “friend of the court.” Facts submitted by amici are now funneled through the screen of advocacy. The result is that the Court is inundated with eleventh-hour, untested, advocacy-motivated claims of factual expertise. And the Justices are listening. This article looks at the instances in recent years when a Supreme Court Justice cites an amicus for a statement of fact. It describes the way the brief, rather than the underlying factual source, is cited as authority and the failure of the parties to act as an adequate check. I challenge this process as potentially infecting the Supreme Court’s decisions with unreliable evidence, and I make suggestions for ways to reform it. It is time to rethink the expertise-providing role of the Supreme Court amicus and to refashion this old tool for the new purpose to which it is currently being used.
Keywords: Amicus, Supreme Court, Fact-Finding, Fact, Brief
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