Yet again, the Supreme Court’s controlled release of rulings is upended in a major abortion case

For the second time in two years, the public learned of where the Supreme Court was headed in a major abortion case before the justices had formally handed down their ruling, spoiling the court’s highly controlled protocols.

The circumstances around Wednesday’s mistaken publishing of an apparent ruling in an Idaho abortion case are very different from the norm-busting leak of the 2022 draft opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade. But both disclosures showed the limits on justices’ ability to roll out controversial opinions on their deliberate and custom-oriented timetable.

Typically, rulings are released on pre-scheduled opinion days with no forecast ahead of time of which cases are coming down. Those mornings, the justices gather in the court to read summaries of their opinions, which are posted online shortly as hard copies are distributed to the court’s dedicated press corps.

Every day, agencies, businesses and organizations deal with the premature disclosure of internal information. But for the Supreme Court, it is viewed as a major departure from its culture of confidentiality if even the smallest nugget about what’s going on behind the scenes makes it into public view.

The leak of the 2022 opinion overturning Roe – obtained and published by Politico nearly two months before the ruling was formally handed down – was a shocking breach of the storied cone of silence around the Supreme Court’s internal deliberations. It prompted endless speculation about the culprit and their political motives, with an investigation by the court’s marshal unable to identify the source of the leak. The internal probe did reveal that the court had surprisingly lax systems that allowed draft opinions to circulate among a wide group of people, with gaps in the technical security that was supposed to protect the court from such exposures.

While much is still not known about how a version of the Idaho case ruling was accidentally posted online, it nonetheless comes as tensions at the court are running high, as the justices scramble to catch up with a backlog of undecided cases.

The case in dispute is over whether Idaho can enforce its abortion ban in situations of serious emergency pregnancy complications that do not threaten the pregnant person’s life. The Supreme Court officially handed down the ruling on Thursday, after the court accidentally posted to its website a version of the opinion on Wednesday that was obtained and reported by Bloomberg.

The majority opted to dismiss the case as “improvidently granted” – a move that allows the justices to duck the case’s legal questions while more proceedings play out at lower courts. The ruling, if and when formally handed down, means that an order from a trial judge that had blocked enforcement of Idaho’s abortion ban in medical emergencies will now go back into effect.

After the mistaken posting of the opinion Wednesday, Supreme Court’s public affairs office acknowledged that a “document” was “inadvertently and briefly uploaded” by the court’s “publication unit.”

“The Court’s opinion in Moyle v. United States and Idaho v. United States will be issued in due course,” court spokesperson Patricia McCabe said Wednesday, referring to the names of the consolidated case.

IT hiccups haunt the Supreme Court

It appears that the posting of the opinion Wednesday to the court’s website was the result of a technological mess-up that was easily traced back to the court and one that made the opinion public only a day before its official release.

That sets it apart from the leak of the draft opinion reversing Roe, in a case known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The disclosure seemed to be a purposeful move to get the opinion into the public domain. It happened several weeks before the final ruling came down, while the draft was still being polished and – perhaps – votes were not finalized.

Still, both instances highlighted how things can fall through the cracks even at the country’s most opaque government institution and how 21st century technology can outpace the court’s practices.

While the investigation into the Dobbs leak did not determine how the opinion got out, it revealed stunning lapses in the court’s informational security. At least 90 people had access to the draft, according to the marshal’s report. The probe found no indications of a hack, but the report said that there were issues with the court’s IT system that hindered the investigation.

Follow-up reporting by CNN revealed that justices were known to use personal emails to send sensitive communications and that so-called “burn bags” to dispose sensitive physical documents went unused. Court employees we also able to print court documents on devices that did not create the “logs” meant to track the printing of documents.

Earlier this term, an IT hiccup gave the public another unintended glimpse into how a separate blockbuster case came together. The case, a unanimous ruling in favor of former President Donald Trump’s challenge to Colorado’s removal of him from its ballot, featured a concurrence authored jointly by the three liberals.

But metadata from the opinion showed that the concurrence started out as a partial dissent, authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, suggesting that it was a last-minute shift in the votes that got all nine justices signed on to the unanimous opinion.

This story has been updated following the official release of the abortion ruling Thursday.

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