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Justices 'Botch the Truth' Often, Report Finds

By William Vogeler, Esq. on October 19, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's true that dogs don't lie, but they do make mistakes.

So why did the U.S. Supreme Court say the reliability of police dogs -- and the risk that they falsely identify drugs in searches -- should be based on their certification? Nobody certifies dogs for "false positives."

The answer is, in Florida v. Harris, the Supreme Court made a mistake. The truth is that, like the tail that wags the dog, sometimes the High Court just goes with its errors.

It's a Fact

ProPublica, a non-profit organization for public interest journalism, say it's a fact: Supreme Court errors are not hard to find. The investigative group randomly sampled 24 court decisions between 2011 and 2015 and found seven material errors.

Writer Ryan Gabrielson asked the court to respond to the findings; the court declined. A spokesperson said, the court "does not comment on its opinions, which speak for themselves."

Former Supreme Court clerks, as well as lawyers and scholars, defended the errors as "surely accidental, produced by talented and devoted people doing complex work under daunting circumstances." Some mistakes, however, were not so innocent.

"In some cases, the errors were introduced by individual justices apparently doing their own research," Gabrielson wrote. "In others, the errors resulted from false or deeply flawed submissions made to the court by people or organizations seeking to persuade the justices to rule one way or the other."

"Deeply Flawed"

ProPublica detailed errors in cases affecting the privacy of NASA workers, voting rights, religious practices, immigrants, and sex offenders. Not every mistake changed the course of history, but some rewrote it.

For example, In Nken v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruled on the government's authority to keep aliens in custody pending court proceedings. The government misled the court about a key fact, and the court bought into it.

The opinion said that the government routinely brings back deported immigrants if they later win their cases. That was not true.

New York University School of Law professor Nancy Morawetz also said it was not unusual. She said such false facts lead to unfair decisions and "question whether that world ever existed."

For the latest Supreme Court news, subscribe to FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Newsletter.

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