legal news & tips for employees published by Law Office of Eugene Lee
Today Google announced the launch of a free federal and state caselaw database that is lightning fast and extremely powerful. It can be found at the “legal opinions and journals” section of Google Scholar.
This is big news. Lawyers around the country are rejoicing now. And you should be too.
Until now, the biggest providers of caselaw – Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw – have acted as a duopoly, charging lawyers a significant amount to access their caselaw databases via slow, proprietary search engines and arcane, hard-to-memorize search commands. Other vendors like FastCase, Versuslaw, Casemaker, charge less but have serious drawbacks compared to the Big Two, such as incomplete caselaw databases.
At long last, Google has entered the space and is now threatening to change the rules of the game for good.
One would think caselaw should be available free to the public. After all, cases are written by judges whose salaries are paid by the taxpayers. Why then should the public have to pay to view cases, the work product of these judges? More importantly, the US legal system is a common law system – meaning judges make the law bit by bit with each case they decide. This means the cases ARE the law. How then can a democracy rule itself without easy and convenient public access to caselaw?
These are the troubling questions numerous organizations have asked themselves and tried to answer by independently attempting to make caselaw available to the public for free. Google gives an honorable mention to these pioneers in its launch announcement: Tom Bruce (Cornell LII), Jerry Dupont (LLMC), Graham Greenleaf and Andrew Mowbray (AustLII), Carl Malamud (Public.Resource.Org), Daniel Poulin (LexUM), Tim Stanley (Justia), Joe Ury (BAILII), Tim Wu (AltLaw)”.
Now Google has thrown its hat into the ring. And what an entrance it is. Here is an excerpt from Google’s launch announcement:
“Starting today, we’re enabling people everywhere to find and read full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts using Google Scholar. You can find these opinions by searching for cases (like Planned Parenthood v. Casey), or by topics (like desegregation) or other queries that you are interested in. For example, go to Google Scholar, click on the “Legal opinions and journals” radio button, and try the query separate but equal. Your search results will include links to cases familiar to many of us in the U.S. such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, which explore the acceptablity of “separate but equal” facilities for citizens at two different points in the history of the U.S. But your results will also include opinions from cases that you might be less familiar with, but which have played an important role.”
I did a test run to compare Google Scholar with the conventional search services. I decided to research sexual harassment caselaw in California. On Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw, the search took a prohibitive amount of time and required many steps. First, I had to log on with my username and password. Second, I had to find and select the right database. Third, I had to formulate the correct string of search commands. Fourth, I had to wait a noticeable length of time for the search results. Fifth, I had to wade through a long list of confusing results by clicking on each one, one at a time. Sixth, I had to reformulate my search commands to create a more targeted result. And so on. What an excruciating and time-consuming process. How frustrating waiting for the screen to refresh each time I do something.
On Google Scholar, I merely typed “sexual harassment” into the search window, selected “California cases” in the pulldown menu, and was immediately rewarded with a wealth of highly relevant cases and articles that appeared in the blink of an eye. The results read like the syllabus for a law school class on sexual harassment. Just incredible. Clicking on “related articles” next to a search result or clicking on a result and then selecting the tab “How Cited” takes you to a list of other cases and articles that discuss the case you are looking at. This is useful for quickly familiarizing yourself on the significance of the case, how it has been interpreted, what it means, etc. This is also a great way to quickly learn the key aspects of sexual harassment law in the State of California. Amazing.
To be sure, Google Scholar is not a replacement for Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw. Not yet. The latter offer features which are not included in Google Scholar: 1) expert commentary, case summaries and case indices that remain indispensable to lawyers, 2) case histories which let lawyers know if the case is still valid, has been overturned, criticized, distinguished, etc., 3) a valuable cut and paste function that automatically generates the proper legal citation for the passage you’re cutting and pasting, 4) access to statutes, laws and regulations, 5) properly formatted hardcopy printouts of cases, etc.
However, the possibilities for Google Scholar are endless. One colleague, Carolyn Elefant at MyShingle.com, has already suggested a wiki add-on that would permit Google Scholar users to append their commentary and analysis to individual cases.
I’m truly excited to see what the future holds now that Google is in the cards. In any case, today is a great day. Free and powerful public access to caselaw has at long last truly arrived.