Google Provides Free Access to Full Text of Court Opinions

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Google is taking a swing at the Lexis/Westlaw duopoly by offering free searches and free access to the full text of state, district, and appellate court opinions. Law journals, too.

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.

We think this addition to Google Scholar will empower the average citizen by helping everyone learn more about the laws that govern us all. To understand how an opinion has influenced other decisions, you can explore citing and related cases using the Cited by and Related articles links on search result pages. As you read an opinion, you can follow citations to the opinions to which it refers. You can also see how individual cases have been quoted or discussed in other opinions and in articles from law journals. Browse these by clicking on the “How Cited” link next to the case title. See, for example, the frequent citations for Roe v. Wade, for Miranda v. Arizona (the source of the famous Miranda warning) or for Terry v. Ohio (a case which helped to establish acceptable grounds for an investigative stop by a police officer).

While the full text of most landmark cases are already available through sites like FindLaw, in giving access to the full range of federal and state decisions Google is providing an important service that, frankly, the government should be already be providing. There’s really no reason why the federal government and every state government shouldn’t provide their respective criminal codes and all court decisions online for free. These, after all, are the laws we’re supposed to follow.

UCLA law professor and blogospherian legal guru Eugene Volokh says the service is a decent start, but needs some obvious improvements, and is still a far cry from replacing Lexis or Westlaw. More feedback over at the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog.

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13 Responses to “Google Provides Free Access to Full Text of Court Opinions”

  1. #1 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Bless Google for these many, many things as well as their secret plans to replace the US$ when it shits the bed in a couple years.

  2. #2 |  ClubMedSux | 

    Volokh’s right that it won’t replace Westlaw or Lexis any time soon, but it’s a major step in that direction. And as a lawyer who sometimes wants to answer non-billable questions (like is it REALLY illegal to make Eisbock because freezing the water crystals is technically a form of distilling?) it’s a pretty sweet resource.

  3. #3 |  Dave Krueger | 

    I see this as a good thing. Joe Sixpack is now going to have direct access to the law. Essentially, that means the only people left who don’t know the laws will be the ones who pass them and the ones who enforce them.

  4. #4 |  InMD | 

    I agree that this is a good thing. You’re slightly off on one thing though Radley. Most states already do provide access to their codes free online as do quite a few localities. Just google the state you’re interested in then “code online”. Actually I’ve yet to come across a state that doesn’t have it up, though oftentimes browsing it is much more cumbersome than with Lexis or West. You just need to know how to search for it but typically it is at the state legislature’s website. In some ways it is actually most helpful to have access to the local/county codes online since in my experience they are the most difficult to locate and often can’t even be found on Lexis or West Law.

    Appellate cases are a different story though you can often find some information via your state’s high court website. Also, though the information isn’t online, the libraries at all state law schools are open to the public. They should all have the regional reporters and though it may be difficult for someone who hasn’t been to law school to browse them the information is out there for free for those who care to find it.

  5. #5 |  Alex Knapp | 

    The info is free as others have pointed out. The service that Westlaw/Lexis provides is ORGANIZATION. And that is time and labor intensive.

  6. #6 |  Ben (the other one) | 

    The new Google service is interesting, and all (taking into account Volokh’s criticisms). I nevertheless wonder if the common law tradition isn’t more trouble than it’s worth.

    If you would like to see transparency in the law, take a look at the French Penal Code. In a single (albeit long) web page, they provide the definition of every crime in France, plus criminal procedure and punishment laws (e.g., rehabilitation). The language (in either English, which is the translation of the web page whose link I just provided, or in French) is also remarkably simple and straightforward.

    My copy of the unannotated US Criminal Code (including Title 18 and selected sections of other titles) is about 1000 pages long. When you add in the fact that French law is uniform nationally– so there are no “state” criminal codes to consider in addition to the federal one– the difference is even more enormous.

  7. #7 |  InMD | 

    Also just to throw out there not every criminal law is in the state’s criminal codes. There are also common law crimes which can be prosecuted regardless of whether or not there is a statute unless the state has specifically rescinded the common law. Most states that still follow the common law do have statutes that deviate slightly form the old rules but still follow the common law formulas. However I don’t think these are the sort of crimes you’re talking about. Common law crimes tend to be the common sense stuff like murder, rape, burglary, etc. It would be pretty hard to commit a common law crime without being aware that you’re doing something illegal unlike some statutory provisions which can criminalize rather obscure conduct. It is important to understand the common law rules as well as what is in the statutes. In theory, even if there was no statute criminalizing murder (though in practice I think all states have some statutory provision regarding it) or other common law crimes the state could still prosecute it.

  8. #8 |  ClubMedSux | 

    . . . . I nevertheless wonder if the common law tradition isn’t more trouble than it’s worth.

    If you would like to see transparency in the law, take a look at the French Penal Code. In a single (albeit long) web page, they provide the definition of every crime in France, plus criminal procedure and punishment laws (e.g., rehabilitation). . . .

    My copy of the unannotated US Criminal Code (including Title 18 and selected sections of other titles) is about 1000 pages long.

    While I agree that our US Criminal Code is ridiculous, I’m not quite sure how you ascribe that to our common law tradition. Common law may get somewhat complicated when you start arguing case law, but the idea is the exact opposite of what’s found in the US Criminal Code. Simply put, the whole idea of common law is that certain crimes are intuitive. You know stealing and murder are wrong so they don’t have to be codified. By contrast, there’s nothing intuitive about criminalizing the “offer, acceptance, or solicitation to influence operations of employee benefit plan,” hence we codify it (18 U.S.C. § 1954).

    Given our inability to concisely codify statutory crimes in the U.S., why would you think doing away with common law and codifying those crimes as well would improve our criminal justice system?

  9. #9 |  Ben (the other one) | 

    There’s two parts of the common law: first, there are common law causes of action in both criminal and civil law, which date back to Merry Olde England. So, for example, the common law courts defined crimes, such as murder and embezzlement, and they defined civil grounds for lawsuits (e.g., torts, breach of contract, etc.). In the criminal law, these have almost all been codified.

    The other aspect of common law is the elaboration through judicial decisionmaking of legal principles which apply to civil or criminal cases. This occurs whether or not the underlying cause of action has been codified in a statute.

    I should have mentioned previously that I think that the effect of judicial elaboration on statutory criminal law has been that the statutes become elaborate to work around, anticipate, or reverse court decisions with which the legislature disagrees.

    A further complicating fact is that the rise of word processing software has made it easier for judges and law clerks to write increasingly lengthy opinions. Sometimes, this occurs by cutting and pasting from other judicial opinions. In other cases, law clerks will take a “bench memo” written to guide a judge’s decision, and alter it slightly for the judge to use as a ruling memorandum. The consequence is that the judicial gloss on statutes has grown enormously in volume over the past 20 years.

  10. #10 |  Salvo | 

    It’s about damn time. Good on Google.

  11. #11 |  Windy | 

    “These, after all, ARE the laws we’re supposed to follow”
    and if we can’t understand the legalese then how can we faithfully obey those laws?

    All bills and laws should be written in plain English, understandable to anyone with a 6th grade education. They should also be completely Constitutional and cite at the beginning of every bill/law the Constitutional authority for what is intended by the bill/law, anything less should be grounds for repeal and a fair excuse for all citizens to disobey said bill/law.

  12. #12 |  Google Provides Free Access to Full Text of Court Opinions « Big Bear Observation Post | 

    [...] [...]

  13. #13 |  the innominate one | 

    forget Volokh, what does Bob Loblaw’s Law Blog say about this development?

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