Will the justices look themselves up on Spokeo?

As always, thanks to CoOp for the opportunity to guest post.  The views expressed are my own

One of the more interesting cases slated for review by the Supreme Court next term is Spokeo v. Robins (here’s a WSJ blog post with an outline of some of the issues).  First things first: several regular and guest contributors to this blog have written a ‘friend of the court’ brief in the case.  You can find that brief here; scotusblog has the dozens of other briefs supporting one side or the other.

While I’m planning to write more about the case’s substantive legal issues (which concern Article III standing), this post will be dedicated to the small bit of silliness outlined in the title.  Namely, what will the justices’ reactions be when they look themselves up on Spokeo’s service, and find results that may strike them as a bit… revealing?

You have to assume at least a few of the thirty+ law clerks at the Supreme Court next term will test run the free “people search” tool on Spokeo.com with their own names and — why not? — the names of their bosses.  Here’s what they will find displayed:

  • the justices’ various home addresses, home prices, and even a Google Earth photo of their residence;
  • the names of, and information about, the justices’ family members;
  • truncated phone numbers from various phones purported to belong to the justices (full numbers presumably can be unlocked with a subscription);
  • and social media accounts purportedly tied to the justices or their family members.

(I decided against posting screenshots of my test searches, although such screenshots would have undoubtedly been fair use in this context). Much of this information is available for free through Spokeo’s public search tool, with additional details made available with a subscription.  Obviously, I have no idea whether the results posted are accurate.

So what?

While I don’t agree with the Court on every issue, my sense is the justices make decisions based on their good faith understanding of the law.  The fact that a case might involve conduct that affects the justices directly probably only matters around the margins.

But still.  The margins are often important in Supreme Court cases.  The justices are only human, and at least a few of them (based on anecdotal accounts) are hostile to intrusions into their private lives.  The fact that Spokeo might facilitate such intrusions is bound, at the very least, to cause a few raised judicial eyebrows.

Remember this exchange from the 2011’s US v. Jones argument, a case involving the Fourth Amendment status of law enforcement’s use of GPS trackers:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: You think there would also not be a [constitutionally regulated] search if you put a GPS device on all of our cars, monitored our movements for a month?

MR. DREEBEN: The Justices of this Court?



That should have read, “uncomfortable laughter.”  It was, after all, the turning point in the argument.  ‘You mean to say you can GPS track us? Yes your honor, that’s exactly what I mean to say.’

More on the Spokeo case soon.


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4 Responses

  1. Joey Fishkin says:

    Well, I had never heard of Spokeo, so on your advice I ran the search for myself. The results? Pretty pathetic. Many entries contain my name and mixes of my own information with other information that is incorrect (phone numbers I’ve never had, addresses where I’ve never lived). I’ve seen my credit reports, and they are a lot more accurate than this. This feels like a web site with a typical too-clever-by-half algorithm for mushing together stuff from credit reports with random stuff from the Internet. In my case the results are predictably full of errors.

    But why would the Justices find this at all interesting, if it were also true of Spokeo’s pages about them? The Justices aren’t looking for a job; most probably aren’t even looking for a mortgage or car loan. The Internet is chock full of inaccurate information and a non-trivial amount of it is about the Court or the Justices. So I’m not sure why this would alarm the Justices the way U.S. v. Jones did. On the merits, it would seem that there’s a pretty good case that a facial violation of the FCRA deserves class status. But persuading the Court of that will require something a lot more convincing than just the fact that the info about the clerks and the Justices is probably not accurate. Who cares? I am reminded of the famous xkcd cartoon about “Someone is wrong on the Internet.” Unless it has real consequences for your life, the apparently wildly inaccurate nature of Spokeo’s data seems innocuous — perhaps oddly privacy-protecting. And if the consequences are what matters rather than Spokeo’s apparently inadequate verification procedures, then that will cut against class certification.

  2. Orin Kerr says:

    Joey, I looked up a few Justices, and I had the opposite reaction.

  3. Orin Kerr says:

    As an side, the oft-repeated view that the Justices voted the way they did in US v. Jones because of the Chief’s question to Michael Dreeben strikes me as one of those claims that makes for a good story but is pure conjecture. As far as I know, no Justice has said that this was a turning point in the argument, or that it was even influential, or that the Justices paid any attention to it. The audience laughed, but I don’t recall any particular reaction from the Justices. Maybe it was important; I don’t know. But my sense is that it has become common wisdom that this is why the Justices voted as they did in Jones, and it’s not clear to me why.

  4. I was at the argument (well, listening in the Lawyer’s Lounge, which has better acoustics), and while I can attest that the transcript is accurate, it doesn’t do justice to the moment.

    What Dreeben actually said was, “The justices of THIS court?”

    And as I recall it, the laughter was more a response to that question than to Roberts’s answer.