Roger Skalbeck is the Technology Services Librarian and Webmaster at George Mason University School of Law in Virginia, and he is a web committee member for the Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, D.C. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of his employer or any other organization. This column, of course, is 100% free of any legal advice.
There is a relatively new service that has been introduced on the Internet for obtaining briefs and records from the Supreme Court, and if you need these kinds of documents to support your practice or research, this company is worth a look. This company is BriefServe.com , and their service currently provides access to Adobe Acrobat versions of Supreme Court briefs and docket sheets, which can be located by docket number or party name.
This site is very easy to navigate, and the interface is clean and very straightforward. Once you have located a case of interest on their service, you can simply select the briefs that you want to purchase for download, adding them to a shopping cart for retrieval at the end of a “shopping session”. If you need a document that is not available on their service, you can request it online for later delivery.
One thing that BriefServe.com does not provide is the ability to search the text of the briefs as a group, though this is obviously not the intent of their service. For that type of research, Lexis and Westlaw will still be your best options. Though this kind of searching is not supported on BriefServe.com, their Adobe Acrobat documents can be searched by keyword or phrase, as they have indexed the page images as a part of providing them for purchase. I tested this with some free docket sheets, and it seems to work well to search within individual documents. The real attraction of BriefServe.com is that briefs are obtained in the format in which they were filed, so that they retain the “look and feel” of the documents as they were originally filed, obviating the need to have a service obtain copies of the briefs on site.
Though other jurisdictions are not now available, BriefServe.com’s web site indicates that they intend to provide briefs from the US Circuit Courts of Appeal, two appellate courts in New York State and the three courts in Pennsylvania. Based on conversations at the vendor’s booth at the American Association of Law Libraries conference last month, the materials for these additional jurisdictions will be enhanced and grown through customer requests. With this model, the first time that a document is requested, it is added to their database of available briefs, after obtaining a print copy from the appropriate court record office. When a second request comes in for the same brief, it will then be available for immediate download.
This model is somewhat the same as that used by MarketSpan in their CaseStream product. Instead of requiring a significant upfront overhead for obtaining documents, new materials might presumably be initially obtained for a paying client, after which any other individual can purchase the document directly. It will be very interesting to see how fast BriefServe.com’s document collection is built for the additional courts, and this service will increasingly be more and more attractive for practitioners interested in appellate practice and filings.
In terms of the coverage of the Supreme Court, BriefServe.com will presumably find some tough competition in FindLaw’s Constitutional Law Center , as they also have a free collection of Supreme Court briefs , which are largely available for download in Adobe Acrobat format. For more information on this section of FindLaw, see my January Notes… column . Presumably BriefServe.com’s collection will grow to be much more comprehensive than that of FindLaw, at least in terms of providing additional historical documents from prior court terms.
Another Source for Appellate Records
As a point to note, if you have an interest in appellate briefs and court records, there are sources other than the traditional court repositories that provide access to documents. Many academic law libraries, archives and other organizations also provide materials of this nature, and there is a fairly recent AALL/Fred B. Rothman Company book devoted to this. This directory details the scope and level of coverage for appellate court materials across the United States, along with the appropriate contact information for each collection. The book is called “A Union List of Appellate Court Records and Briefs.” by Michael Whiteman and Peter Scott Campbell. If you are interested in this title, it is listed as item #58 on the AALL/Rothman Publication Series page , for a price of $37.50.
Not too long ago, I switched over from working in a private firm environment to that of an academic institution, and I am quickly beginning to see that the academic world is just as replete with technology wonders as is a private law practice. It is interesting to see how technology innovation and new products can flow from the academic world into that for the commercial market and vise versa. In some circumstances, the pricing model might be easier to initiate with the academic market, so it is logical that it start there. In other instances, the profit motive and overall market will be more geared towards commercial consumption. In future columns, I hope to look into this phenomenon in greater detail. For now, let’s look at a newly updated product exclusive to the academic market, which will likely have some commercial application down the road.
For providing support for law school class materials, West Group offers something called The West Education Network , commonly referred to as TWEN. TWEN is a facility for law faculty to post course materials on a restricted-access Internet site for use as a teaching aid. Major components of this service include the following:
- Law faculty can post documents such as syllabus and reading list materials online as word-processed documents, which can be automatically converted to HTML.
- Discussion forums can be established for the exchange of discussion topics and materials. In these forums, documents and assignments can also be posted and shared.
- As the service is tied in to Westlaw, fairly concise links can be established to point to law review articles, cases, statutes and other materials. As a part of the file conversion process, these links can be automatically generated.
- Quizzes, calendars, course outlines, Internet links and Westlaw news links can be added to course materials.
- Law faculty have the opportunity to email participating students, view usage statistics and maintain access control.
These are just some of the features that exist in the TWEN service, and some of them are new as of this month, when the most recent version became generally available on August 7th of this year. In essence, this service provides many of the same features as extranets of today and tomorrow. The system supports document sharing, online discussion and collaboration. In addition to this, the availability of Westlaw databases also makes it a gateway to primary legal materials and other controlled documents.
Access to TWEN is controlled primarily by the student’s Westlaw password, and participants must also register in order to agree to access terms. Looking at TWEN from the law school technology perspective, there are indeed some distinct attractions, such as:
- West provides server support, technical assistance and training for faculty and student participants, and all materials are hosted on computers owned and maintained by West Group.
- Traditional course materials can be supplemented by electronically accessible documents such as cases and law reviews. In some circumstances, this can even provide an alternative means for obtaining course packets or other reading materials, which might otherwise be kept as reserve reading or available through a copy center.
- Students and faculty can communicate more or less asynchronously, and class discussions can be conducted outside of class meeting times.
- As the system seems to have a relatively low learning curve for faculty wishing to post materials, the burden on law school web content folks can be lessened.
There are indeed a few disadvantages and caveats to this system though. First off, the somewhat obvious caveat is that exclusive use of this system is fairly likely to bias users towards using Westlaw for online research. In addition to that, since each course offering is available exclusively on the respective Westlaw site, it is difficult to incorporate TWEN materials as a part of a wider offering of materials on an Internet site. By this, I mean that it would be difficult for somebody to combine course materials and functionality that are tightly integrated with existing Internet-based services. Nonetheless, TWEN is a very impressive service, and it is certainly one stark example of the future of legal education and scholarship.
As always, if you have questions or comments on this column, please don’t hesitate to send me an email .
Web Sites Mentioned in this column:
Supreme Court briefs (on FindLaw)
Copyright © 2000 Roger V. Skalbeck. All Rights Reserved.