A Supreme effort

The first example of the Web's role in the election came in Florida. Whilethe TV networks were busy awarding Florida first to Gore, then Bush, andthen putting the state's returns in the too-close-to-call column, the FloridaDepartment of State's Web site had the actual vote totals hours ahead ofTV newscasters.

When word of this got out Nov. 8, the site buckled under the pressureof millions of visitors. No one could have foreseen the demand, and thereforefew were surprised when they could not get through. Even so, the site shouldbe lauded for getting millions of people the only timely and accurate informationduring that long election night.

Similarly, the Florida Supreme Court demonstrated why the state is knownas a leader in access to public information. The court held open hearingsand released its finding on the Internet. Again, many of the mirror sites— those that contained the same or similar information — were inaccessible,but it is difficult to fault the court, which may never again face suchnational scrutiny.

However, the real achievement in better public access last year wasthe U.S. Supreme Court's new Web site (www.supremecourtus.gov). A yearago, advocates of government openness complained that the lack of an officialcourt Web site caused confusion among citizens and forsook accountability.In March, Justice David Souter announced that the court would build a site;it was launched in April.

The Supreme Court site still lacks complete information, but the decisionto post opinions the same day they are released has proved to be an importantstep. The court claims that the site received more than 1 million visitsin the hour after the final presidential election decisions were released.By night's end, millions of Americans saw with their own eyes the complexdocuments that the media were interpreting — or misinterpreting.

Kathy Arberg, the court spokeswoman who has had to answer inquiriesabout its closed nature in the past, was able to trumpet the court's successin getting documents directly to the public via the Web. A source at theGovernment Printing Office, which hosts the site, claims they received theequivalent of three months of mail per day during the week of the decision.Yet, despite e-mail overload, the site did not go down.

Although the Supreme Court's Web site needs improvement, it has shownit is on the right track by rising to this important challenge. It seemsthat the courts and local governments, which have been criticized in thepast for trailing federal agencies in providing information online, arefinally catching up. n

--Schwartz is a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technologyin Washington, D.C.

Other columns by Ari Schwartz

"An unseemly 60-day rule" [Federal Computer Week, Dec. 11, 2000]

"A law in need of a new look" [Federal Computer Week, Oct. 30, 2000]

"Mirror, mirror on the Web" [Federal Computer Week, Sept. 11, 2000]

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