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

By Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen, Published on April 4, 2008

"…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:

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.