Supreme Court Justices are Tech Novices


Last night I was made aware of the case of Ontario v. Quon where a SWAT officer in the Ontario, CA city had his personal pager messages read and sued based on the idea that his messages were private. While the case has potential ramifications for the privacy in the workplace what is more interesting to many is the fact that this case shows the Supreme Court Justices are very out of touch with today’s technology. This conclusion has been reached by Ashby Jones at the Wall Street Journal as well as Kashmir Hill and the AP.

Here is a salient excerpt of the conversation:

“I thought, you know, you push a button; it goes right to the other thing,” Roberts said.

“You mean it doesn’t go right to the other thing?” Scalia said.

It is interesting that my viewpoint on this matter has changed based on past experience. You see I used to complain that George Bush and Dick Cheney didn’t know much about technology and as a result they were less likely to govern properly. Then when Obama became President I was happy because I thought his mastery of tech and umbilical connection to a Blackberry was great for the tech industry and the country. With record unemployment, the forcefeeding of an unpopular healthcare bill and the President’s popularity in the US plummeting*, it is obvious that being tech savvy isn’t the most important factor in any position.

It is worth pointing out that the Court is not made up of youngsters who grew up on IM and video games. The average age is 76.4 and the youngest member is 71! They break down like this: John Paul Stevens, 89; Antonin Scalia, 73; Anthony Kennedy, 73; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 76; Stephen Breyer, 71. Thanks to reader who pointed out that this information is incorrect. There is no excuse for me to ever make a mistake but what I learned was to double-check my sources more carefully. Assuming Wikipedia is more accurate the average age is actually 68 years, 10 months.

Technology is evolving so fast that the idea that the highest court in the land is not keeping up is a bit scary from the perspective that privacy on the Internet has evolved over the years where really almost nothing is private. Some of the reasons are technological like a search engine’s ability to find the person associated with virtually any phone number. Others are intentional disregard for privacy like posting intimate secrets on social network sites.

We will no doubt see a case soon enough which pits the new ideas heavy Internet users have about privacy against decades-old case-law and at this point it will be very interesting to see how the court rules.

* I have had some verbal comments about President Obama’s approval ratings and more specifically that they haven’t plummeted. According to Rasmussen, the president enjoyed 65% approval ratings when he took office and this has decreased to 47% in just over a year of a four-year term. You can see the trend for yourself and decide.

  • Jim
    April 21, 2010 at 11:39 am

    I think it may be worth noting that just under half the court is less that 60. The court is changing. The question you raise, and it is a valid one, is can it change quickly enough to face the rate of change within the tech industry. I would say no. It has not yet in its history been able to keep pace with technological change and as that rate of change increases it will only become more difficult.

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