|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JULY 2009|
Free is good. But free is not necessarily equal. Below are 10 sites that provide free access to case law. Each has its peculiar strengths and weaknesses. Which is right for your research project? The answer depends on what you need.
Between the two, each is stronger in some areas of coverage and weaker in others. Fastcase’s Supreme Court library dates back to 1754. Its federal circuit cases start from the beginning of the Federal Reporter second series in 1925 and its federal district court cases go back to 1912.
For Casemaker, its Supreme Court library also dates back to 1754. Its federal circuit library goes back to 1930 and its federal district court cases go back to 1932.
Both services have appellate cases from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with coverage varying widely by state. All Fastcase libraries go back at least to 1950. Several Casemaker state libraries go back even farther, to 1930 and earlier.
Both services offer multiple search options, including Boolean and proximity searching, and both allow searching across multiple libraries. Both use hyperlinks for citations within opinions and both have methods for checking the subsequent history of a case.
Coverage is impressive. It has all Supreme Court opinions since 1886, federal circuit opinions since 1930 (except for the 9th, D.C. and Federal Circuits, which start later), federal district courts as far back as 1931, and appellate courts for all 50 states plus D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam, some as far back as 1910.
The most irksome limitation is that searching can be done only on a state-by-state basis, even for federal cases. That means having to go to each separate state page and conducting a separate search for federal and state case law within that state.
Another shortcoming is that cases do not list their citations or docket numbers (internal citations are retained). There is an option to purchase the full case, which includes its citation, for a charge of $2.95.
Operating just over a year now and still in beta, PreCYdent uses a sophisticated search engine to tap into the growing body of public-domain case law. It then adds a number of Web 2.0 features to enhance its usability.
It has an impressive library of federal cases. It includes all Supreme Court opinions since 1759, complete with official U.S. citation and pagination. It has all federal circuit opinions since 1950, including official citations and pagination for those through 2006. With only a few exceptions, it also has all federal district opinions since 2004.
On the state side, it has appellate opinions from 38 states and the District of Columbia. These are mostly from within the last decade, but some go back even earlier. The oldest set of opinions — those of the Oklahoma Supreme Court — dates back to 1890.
PreCYdent incorporates a number of Web 2.0 features that allow users to add commentary, recommendations and ratings to cases and to use social bookmarking. Citations within cases are hyperlinked to the citation source document, when available.
4. The Public Library of Law
In February 2008, Fastcase opened this free library of cases, statutes, regulations, court rules and legal forms. Although it claims to be the “largest free law library in the world,” the case law portion of its library is less comprehensive than the libraries of some other sites.
PLOL includes all Supreme Court cases, all federal circuit opinions since 1950, and all state appellate opinions since 1997. It does not include federal district court or state trial court opinions.
PLOL lacks the bells, whistles and red flags of the commercial version of Fastcase. But for simple, bare-bones research, it is a useful option.
Its library includes only federal cases. Its library now has all Supreme Court opinions since 1803, all published federal circuit opinions since 1950, and all unpublished federal circuit cases since 1996.
The site features a number of sophisticated search options, including Boolean, proximity and wildcard searching.
Justia has all Supreme Court opinions, all federal circuit court opinions since 1950 and some U.S. district court opinions. It includes full-text searching of all cases plus the ability to browse decisions by court and date. For those courts it does not have, it provides links to external sources.
Findlaw has a library of court opinions published on the site and also provides links to other sources of court opinions. Included on Findlaw are all Supreme Court opinions since 1893 and all federal circuits, with most circuits going back to 1995. It also has state appellate opinions dating back in most cases to 1996.
This site’s goal is to publish all federal and state case law in the public domain. In February 2008, it published its first set of decisions, some 1.8 million pages of federal cases provided to it by Fastcase. Since then, the site has continued to expand its coverage of federal and state court opinions.
It now has Supreme Court decisions all the way back to 1754 and federal circuit opinions back to the beginning of the Federal Reporter series in 1880 (with some gaps in coverage between 1924 and 1950). It also has a number of state cases.
The site is only a data warehouse. It provides no search functionality and is set up like an FTP directory. However, the site can be searched using Google’s site search. (Search in Google using the format “site:bulk.resource.org” followed by the query.) Also, both PreCYdent and AltLaw use some or all of this data for their case law searching.
Lexisone provides free access to a limited range of cases from the LexisNexis database. It includes access to Supreme Court cases since 1781 and to all federal and state cases decided within the last 10 years.
While it lacks the full functionality of the LexisNexis database, it allows for searches to be conducted by keywords or citation. Searches can also be conducted for specific parties, judges and lawyers.
To use it, free registration is required.
10. Legal Information Institute
The LII has all Supreme Court opinions since 1990 and a collection of 600 older cases selected for their historical significance.
It also has all New York Court of Appeals decisions issued since 1990.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Ambrogi, who practices law in Rockport, Mass., is the former editor of National Law Journal and Lawyers Weekly USA. He is internationally known for his writing about the Internet and technology.
© 2009 Robert Ambrogi