Reference from Coast to Coast: Making A Federal Case Out of It

"…no need to make a federal case out of it…" was an often heard phrase from childhood. We knew then that a federal case was a big deal but not why. As we matured and found professions in law, the federal case was visually a big deal in every library - hundreds of linear feet of shelf space was devoted to the bound volumes of federal case law. As those linear feet became databases, the federal case was the first type of law deemed workable in digital form. And now, it is possible to find even more options if you want to make a federal case out of it.

If you are seeking full service reporting of federal case law, you will want one of the established publishers (West or LexisNexis) where headnotes, Shepard's indicators, official citations and other value-added editorial work makes the research process more streamlined. Federal case law has long been available via the web. Court websites and law schools such as Cornell, Emory and Washburn offered access to slip opinions. PACER offers slip opinions free of charge to its registered users and has initiated access to the general public at selected public law libraries. However, the body of federal case law available free on the web has grown substantially and actual searching of the slip opinions is now available on a number of sites. And it's this availability that has us pondering one of legal research's basics: federal cases.

Perhaps the most important recent development in finding federal case law without cost on the Web is the release by Public.Resource.Org of more than a million pages of federal case law. This nonprofit organization is requesting help from researchers to grow this resource by "recycling" documents that researchers have pulled from PACER and making them available to the public - see the description of this project at http://pacer.resource.org/recycling.html. Public.Resource.Org put legs on the idea of public access to legal materials by encouraging those who can pay for access to assist those who cannot.

So, what's new and who are the players? How do they compare to some of our familiar sources? First, we asked ourselves which websites we used to retrieve the text of federal opinions other than PACER or the court itself. And of course we run into that old West v. Lexis thing with Findlaw and LexisONE. Cornell's LII is also popular for case law retrieval. For the past six months or so bloggers and press releases and LLRX.com, in Peggy Garvin's The Government Domain: What's new in Dotgov and Beyond, published February 27, 2008, have been letting us know that AltLaw, Justia, Public Library of Law and PreCYdent are making available searchable federal case law. So we're taking a look at these websites in an extremely unscientific quick and dirty search using the popular name of a federal statute if needed to get a feel for how capable these websites are:

  • FindLaw offers access to federal circuit court decisions and links to federal district court websites along with many other jurisdictions. However, FindLaw is annoyingly cluttered with advertising and the search process is not clean. After you have registered you will be directed to the government sponsored webpage for your jurisdiction, but you may still be several clicks away from actually seeing a decision. Interestingly this site is maintained by Thomson West, who just announced an approach via Westlaw for searching the web for more "legally relevant" materials. Yet, searching FindLaw for case law covering Davis Bacon the researcher has to scroll past "sponsored sites" for ham, bacon and other pork products.
  • LexisONE provides a template for case law searching but its limited coverage (past five years for federal and state courts other than the U.S. Supreme Court) directly impacts its search capabilities.
  • Cornell's LII (Legal Information Institute) offers a search tool for all the U.S. Circuit courts. The front page offers a clear listing of the dates covered—essential in any attempt to use the Web as a case law source. The earliest cases are from the Fifth and Seventh Circuits where a beginning date of 1992 appears.
  • A newcomer to the field of free federal case law websites is AltLaw. This site is clean and easy to use - the Davis Bacon Act search mentioned above could be done with quotes to limit results and 232 federal cases from the Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal and Federal Court of Claims were retrieved. An advanced search template as well as a browsing feature are also available. The purpose of this site is to make the "common law" a little more accessible to the common folk and the coverage of the database goes back to the 1940's in many of the Courts of Appeals.
  • Justia offers law related information including searchable federal case law. A former Findlaw executive, Tim Stanley, is at work here and some of the material pulls together very helpful links. Searching the federal case law is clear—a template is offered which helps the user know if one is searching only files with full text opinions and which dates are covered. I was most successful searching all files without limiting by full text opinion. Since federal district court opinions are now electronically available via PACER the full text option doesn't find cases that require going into PACER.
  • The Public Library of Law from FastCase makes available free legal resources including caselaw via a tabbed search template. It requires registration – its User guide tells us to think of it as our library card to law on the web. Searching – key word and Boolean, limiting by jurisdiction as well as retrieval by citation are available here. It's clean and fast. "Davis Bacon" retrieved 268 cases with a note that 316 more results were available from FastCase.
  • Another attempt at increasing free access to federal court documents as well as other legal materials is PreCYdent. The search engine on this site is impressively quick and allows for limiting ones search to specific dates or jurisdictions. The range of federal District court cases is small in this "alpha" version of PreCYdent, but apparently the PreCYdent team plans to expand their offering. This website also allows for searching statutes and "uploaded documents" which cover specific issues.

We welcome these new options in searching and retrieving federal case law. And we'll be watching as the coverage grows. We can now direct our patrons to sources other than the big two while keeping in mind that the editorial enhancements, indexing and other value added editorial content from these same big two remain an integral part of our legal research process.