The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

From "the pneumatic age" to the digital age


One of my favorite New Years' rituals is reading Chief Justice Roberts's year-end report on the federal judiciary. As Tony Mauro pointed out a few days ago, with progress on judicial pay, the courts' budget, and judicial vacancies, it seemed like this year's report was going to have to be on a new topic.

And indeed it is. It begins:

November 10, 1893, the Washington Post identified an emerging technology that was reshaping American society: Pneumatics! The miracle of compressed air had led to the creation of new contraptions, including pneumatic tube systems that relied on air compressors to transport cylindrical containers hundreds of feet within buildings. Pneumatic tube systems had found favor in banks and department stores, enabling clerks to transmit documents rapidly from one office to another. Noting this and other applications of pneumatics, the Washington Post lightheartedly proclaimed, "The present era is likely to be known to history as the pneumatic age."
News of this dawning era was slow to reach the Supreme Court. . . .

The rest of the report goes on to announce that the Supreme Court is planning to unveil, at long last, its own electronic filing system (which will also make the filings available to the public - an exciting development for law bloggers everywhere). It also has a long explanation/apologia for why the judiciary tends to be slower than other institutions to adopt new technologies.

As Richard Re observed on Twitter, "Between Riley and today's year-end message, it look like the Chief wants to make tech savvy (or at least competence) part of his legacy." (For Richard's previous post on why the Supreme Court needs electronic filing, see here.)

[N.B., in the course of discussing the decline of the pneumatic tube system, the report also contains the line "But not even things gray can stay …" That sounded to me like a literary allusion of some kind, but Google didn't immediately return an obvious source. Is it an allusion to Robert Frost's Nothing Gold Can Stay?]