Reporter of Decisions
The Supreme Court of the United States is unique among the federal courts in that it has a statutory officer who, under the direction of the Court or the Chief Justice, prepares the Court’s decisions for publication. For nearly thirty years after the establishment of the federal government, the Court’s decisions were published privately and sold by independent reporters. A statute of 1817 directed the justices to appoint a salaried official reporter, who would “print and publish” the decisions of the Court “or cause [those decisions] to be printed and published” (3 Stat. 376). The act required the reporter to publish the Court’s decisions within six months of their rendering and to deliver eighty copies of these decisions to the Secretary of State for distribution to various government officials and the Library of Congress.
The first official reporter, Henry Wheaton, enjoyed the exclusive right to publish and sell the Court’s decisions issued during his tenure (1817–1827), until the Court declared that neither Wheaton nor anyone else possessed a copyright for its work product (Wheaton v. Peters, 8 Pet. 591, 1834). This decision paved the way for Wheaton’s successor, Richard Peters (1828–1843), to publish and sell his own volumes of the Court’s decisions dating back to the 1790s. In 1834 the Court also issued an order requiring the justices to file their opinions in written form (8 Pet. vii). Prior to this order, the justices delivered most of their opinions orally, and published versions of the Court’s decisions consisted of reporters’ transcriptions, supplemented by any notes that the individual justices may have provided.
As the volume of the Court’s work grew after the Civil War, Congress granted the reporter an extra two months in which to publish decisions, and it raised the annual salary of this officer to $2,500, provided that he now deliver 300 copies of the Court’s opinions to the Secretary of the Interior (14 Stat. 51, 205). Until 1874 each reporter paid the costs of printing and publishing the Court’s decisions, and the volumes of the official reports bore the name of the reporter. In 1874 Congress appropriated funds for the publication costs, and subsequent volumes bore the title “United States Reports.”
In 1948 Congress authorized the Court to fix the salary of the reporter, who was authorized to hire assistants. Five years later, Congress changed the official title of the Court’s reporter to “Reporter of Decisions,” so as to distinguish this person from the stenographic reporters who were hired by the Court to record and transcribe the proceedings therein. In addition to performing editorial work to ensure that the justice’s opinions contained no typographical or grammatical errors and that they conformed to the Court’s stylistic rules, reporters of decisions have worked to ensure the accuracy of the quotations and citations employed by the justices. Since the days before Wheaton became the first official reporter, the holders of this post have prepared the “syllabus” that precedes the text of each case in the reports—a brief statement of the rulings of the points of law decided in the case.
Wagner, Frank D. “The Role of the Supreme Court Reporter in History,” Journal of Supreme Court History 24 (2001): 9–23.
Dunne, Gerald T. “Early Court Reporters,” Supreme Court Historical Society Yearbook (1976): 61–73.
Court Officers and Staff