Historical records are hard to look through casually. One solution is being explored in the case of Supreme Court justice nominee Elena Kagan’s archive of emails sent while working under the Clinton administration. That body of data is now available in a Web-based interface that looks a lot like Gmail and is open to full-text search, thanks to the watchdog Sunlight Foundation.

Elena’s Inbox is a thought-provoking project that could inspire future efforts to facilitate citizen evaluation of public records, and the Sunlight Foundation has open-sourced the code used to build it. As it stands, the microsite is a fun and interesting peek inside the Clinton administration’s day-to-day operations. It’s hard to imagine any previous political nominee facing this degree of public transparency.

Kagan was a legal eagle for Clinton, holding two different positions over five years. In that time, she sent just under 5,000 emails.

Full Text Search is a Start

Some of the emails are amusing, others enlightening, others still are both. This is a fun interface for looking through these texts, but the limitations are quickly evident as well. Full text search works well when it’s your own email you’re searching through, but when you don’t know what language someone else uses to discuss certain topics, full text search feels inadequate. If a site like this incorporated collaborative user tagging of emails into topical buckets, that would make it all the more interesting. It would also be in character for the Sunlight Foundation.

It’s interesting, for example, to read that the policy focus Kagan recommended the President consider regarding race and crime was “systematic underprotection of minorities (segregation of safety).” That does sound more politically palatable than focusing on inequities in sentencing.

As a public service, Elena’s Inbox is quite helpful. As Kagan faces debate and questioning over her nomination, the site will offer a very easy way to see what she said about topics 10 years ago, and how she said it, while in a position of substantial political power. That’s certainly a historically unprecedented degree of transparency around a Supreme Court nominee.