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It Pleased the Court...

WELL, it didn't really. But US Supreme Court justices on Tuesday swallowed hard and announced that they had instructed the National Archives to release more widely tape recordings of oral arguments presented before the court, albeit with a few months' delay.

Until now, those tapes have gone to the archives, where scholars, lawyers, and others could listen to them or, under certain conditions, copy them. Now, they will be available for broadcast and even commercial use.

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The court has made the right move. It is opening to a broader audience a window on its operations, which can improve public understanding of and appreciation for the court's work. And by allowing commercial reproduction, the decision could undercut the financial windfall of political scientist Peter Irons, who this summer violated an agreement he signed with the National Archives regarding the Supreme Court tapes. Mr. Irons transcribed and edited a set of such tapes and is selling the set, entitled ``May It Please the Court,'' in bookstores for $75. This despite his agreement not to use the tapes for commercial distribution.

For lawyers, scholars, and others interested in the US legal system, the high court's action is in its own way a landmark, building on the Library of Congress's decision earlier this year to release the late Justice Thurgood Marshall's papers shortly after his death. That the court was backed into this week's decision by the ethically dubious actions of one political scientist is regrettable. That it relaxed restrictions on the tapes is not.

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