Vinylefex
Vinylefex

Friday mornings reminded him of clearing the gutters after a major windstorm. It was hard work with few psychic benefits. Judge A.M. Smith (A.M. To his friends, Atticus Marshall to his mother) was a U.S. federal appellate court judge. He sat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 15th Circuit. At the moment, he was in a conference room huddling with a law clerk and a coding clerk. They slogged through the cases decided that week. Even a triple macchiato soy vanilla (two shots) grande lacked the punch to carry him through the session. He reminded himself that he had life tenure. In a gig world with jobs lasting six weeks on average, that was a good thing.

It wasn’t the discussion of cases that bothered him. It was the back and forth to get them into publishable form. He could say whatever he wanted in his written opinion. But only one thing mattered: the coded opinion.

Law Becomes Code

Congress had passed the Interoperable Opinion Codability and Usability Structure law in 2025. Progressives and conservatives hailed IOCUS as the greatest innovation in the judicial system since trial by jury. U.S. Chief Technology Officer, 21-year old Mark Sergey Gates (known to his friends as MSG) championed the law. MSG had PhDs from MIT and CalTech. In his free time, he dual-coded. He had two monitors positioned side-by-side each running of its own laptop. He would code one program using the left monitor and a second using the right monitor. He said it was like playing two chess games at the same time. “IOCUS,” he said, “would finally make law transparent.”

IOCUS grew out of immense public frustration with the federal judicial system. Each year, the courts fell further behind on deciding cases. The written opinions judges produced were undecipherable, even to most lawyers. Concern kept rising that law had moved from the government to corporations. Corporations established their own laws and legal systems in website terms and conditions. No one challenged those laws and systems, because the court system was too costly, slow, and ineffective to help them. For many, the rule of law was the rule of corporation. IOCUS was the fix.

Under IOCUS, human judges decided cases. But, IOCUS stepped in and mandated that judges write all decisions in text and in computer executable code. Opposition to the bill among judges was a hair shy of unanimous.

IOCUS authorized the hiring of one coder for each federal judge. The limitation was intentional—Congress wanted to keep the focus on simple coding. Adding coders would encourage complexity.

Congress had listened to the judiciary. The phase-in period stretched over five years. Judges had to produce coded opinions in diversity jurisdiction cases with simpler, state court issues first. Other legal issues trickled in over time, with constitutional law cases at the end. Courts were to code cases with many issues according to the “last needing coding” rule. A judge would code a case with contract and constitutional issues as if the entire case depended on constitutional law. Lawyers joked that judges would find constitutional law issues in every case. IOCUS left the remaining details of implementing the law to others.

The Federal Center for Judicial Innovation (FCJI) filled in some details. The rest had evolved over the 10 years since IOCUS became law.

Judge Smith’s chambers handled case decisions the same way as other federal judges. Smith and his law clerk would read the briefs, listen to oral argument, meet with the other panel judges, and do the other things a typical appellate court judge always had done. The three judges on the panel would make their decisions. The senior panel judge in the majority would assign the task of writing the decision.

Judges could write whatever they wanted to say. They could publish one written opinion or any combination of opinions expressing their views. But, it was the job of the senior judge in the majority to produce the code opinion. The code opinion was the only thing that mattered. If a written opinion conflicted with the code opinion, the code opinion prevailed.

A New Way of Writing

A code opinion was the majority opinion, annotated so a computer could read it. That was part of IOCUS’ beauty. The law created incentives for judges to write clear, simple opinions. Coding clerks would tag unnecessary verbiage as dicta. They would push back on ambiguous tests until they got something the computer could execute. Long, windy diatribes became short, concise statements of the law.

The coding process was simple. The coding clerk used a program to review and take a first pass at tagging the opinion. The clerk would review the first-pass coding and adjust the tags as needed. The FCJI had standardized the tags. The sticking point for the court was choosing what was necessary for a holding and what was supplementary, but unnecessary, material. Judge Smith battled that devil as part of the Friday morning sessions.

The court published the final written and coded opinions in a public repository using blockchain technology. Using a blockchain ensured that no one could alter the court’s official opinions. The blockchain was a distributed ledger. Within minutes of publication, everyone who subscribed to the chain had access to both versions of the opinion. Tampering with an opinion required changing the opinion block on all versions of the ledger at the same time, something that had never happened.

Any complex system may have errors. A coding clerk could make a mistake. To deal with this problem, the FCJI required that courts publish decisions to repositories on LawGitHub. Any person could log on and suggest a change to a published decision. The system had filters to handle spam. The coding clerks for a court (say, all coding clerks for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit) met under the supervision of the Chief Judge of the Court to consider suggestions aimed at that court’s decisions.

The coding clerks separated the suggestions into three buckets. First, they weeded out suggestions to change the decision. Second, they gathered “typo” suggestions. Third, they gathered the ambiguous suggestions. If someone wanted to change a three-part test to a four-part test, the suggestion died at the clerks. But, if someone caught a “fro” that should have been “for” or a Smith v. Johnson that should have been Smith v. John, clerks would pass it to the fix pile. Finally, the clerks had a pile of questions. Should “a, b, and c” be “a, b, or c”? Was the third sentence in the fourth paragraph missing “not”?

The clerks would work out which changes to make, and the court’s Chief Judge would accept or reject them. If accepted, the changes were sent as updates to the master opinion blockchain. The update process ensured that everyone knew if a court had modified its original opinion. Transparency.

Innovation Begets Innovation

Several innovations followed IOCUS. Instead of using arcane references to cases, statutes, and other legal sources, the legal industry adopted the “Digital Legal Identifier” system. The DLI system was similar to the “Digital Object Identifier” system used by scholars. Every case, statute, regulation, code, and other legal source had a unique Digital Legal Identifier or DLI assigned to it. The DLI became the permanent identifier for that legal source. DLIs could identify parts of a source, such as a sentence, paragraph, or section. Citing became easy. Instead of Smith v. Jones, 123 F.3d 456 (6th Cir. Apr. 3, 2023) lawyers used Smith v. Jones, dli: 06:04032023:xxxxxxxxx. The dli became a hyperlink by adding “https://“ before the number. The DLI system eliminated time spent on getting citations in the correct “form,” among other things.

Coded opinions meant cases could be incorporated into other documents. Drafters could include specific cases as governing authority for documents or portions of documents. They could show how a section of the document satisfied each part of a test.

Scholars had a field day analyzing opinions. Before IOCUS, tracking issues across courts was tedious. Language was inconsistent, tests ambiguous, and the law a muddled mess. After IOCUS, a simple tool could pull all relevant law across all cases and compare what each court had written. Outliers became obvious. Sloppy decision-making declined.

Rather than developing private legal systems, corporations turned back to public systems. The ambiguity of public legal systems, delays, and politicized aspects of the process caused many corporations to use mediation or arbitration. Law had become hidden behind computer firewalls and claims of “proprietary” or “trade secret.” As IOCUS led law to become transparent, courts moved faster, and politics declined, it was easier for corporations to use public law.

Finally, routine cases dropped out of the legal system. With clear decisions and executable code for law, parties saw significant risk, high cost, and few benefits in taking simple cases to court. Predictive analytics software used the coded cases as input and the facts of a new case. For a small fee, a party could get a “high confidence” level prediction of the outcome of their case in the court system. Settlement was a better option.

Back to the Present

The story you read is fiction, but is it fantasy? All the pieces necessary to make the story a reality exist. For example, scholars have a tagging system for text and have used it for decades. Scientists use the Digital Object Identifier system for research papers. Software to read and compare annotated text is available for free, as is the software to do the tagging. Blockchain technology and software to write blockchain applications is in use. Coders and many others use GitHub as a central repository.

I left out many details needed to make the story a reality. Change is one. Judicial opinions fail to meet the codability test. Many decisions look like gray goo rather than crisp, executable code. Moving the judiciary to precise writing will take some work. Note, that the system I describe does not require a court to create a hard rule where ambiguity rules. It does require the court to make the ambiguity clear.

Technology in law can mean solving problems, rather than expensive ways to replace labor with machines. They software to do what I describe in the story is free—I have all of it on my laptop. Knitting the software into an integrated system takes some effort, but I have working pieces of the system I describe. People have built the wall between using existing technology to help others and using technology as a barrier. People can bash down that wall. I’m having fun handing out sledgehammers to the next generation of lawyers.