WASHINGTON -- Suddenly, the Supreme Court finds itself shorn of its inner secrets -- and powerless to do much about it.
The justices, embarrassed over the decision of the Library of Congress to make public the late Justice Thurgood Marshall's files on cases as recent as 1991, threatened yesterday to deposit their papers somewhere else when they retire or die.
"I speak for a majority of the active justices of the court when I say that we are both surprised and disappointed by the library's decision to give unrestricted public access to Justice Thurgood Marshall's papers," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington after the justices met in an extraordinary closed-door session.
Justice Rehnquist conceded that Justice Marshall gave the library the discretion to decide who could see the 173,700 items in his files.
But he chided library officials for using "bad judgment" by failing to consult any member of Justice Marshall's family or the court, which has a "long tradition of confidentiality in its deliberations."
The Marshall files became available to the public in January, but went largely unnoticed until the Washington Post reported some of the contents in articles this week.
The files provide a rare glimpse into the court's confidential discussions and internal jockeying during Justice Marshall's 24 years on the bench. Other former justices barred public access to their papers for 10 years or more after their deaths.