Repositories of Federal or State Case Law

Case law is law created by courts through their court decisions. A court decision is usually included in the written opinion that marks the end of the legal dispute. Opinions have been collected in “court reporters” — usually a West publication — for hundred of years. In print, in order to locate a specific reporter, you first need to know its name. The Bluebook, as mentioned before, is a useful tool in identifying the correct name of each reporter.

Once you know the title or the abbreviation of the reporter, you can easily locate its print version by using any library catalog, in the same way you would search for any book or monograph.

These reporters are also available electronically. They are available from both free-of-charge and fee-based databases. The free-of-charge legal repositories and portals are Google Scholar [1], The Public Library of Law, Spindlelaw [2], LexisOne [3], and FindLaw [4].

a) Google Scholar has incorporated AltLaw, and perhaps formed a better product, especially in light of the fact that it contains the print reporter’s pagination, even if it is the West reporter). AltLaw brought to the mega search engine its database of United States Supreme Court case law (1803 to the present); and United States Circuit Courts of Appeal case law (published cases from 1950 to the present and unpublished cases from 1996 to the present).

b) The Public Library of Law (PLol), created by Fastcase, is a free public resource with searchable American case law from 2004 and Supreme Court cases back to 1754.

c) FindLaw is a unique legal resource. It is both an online repository of law, because it provides legal resources on the Internet for both laymen and lawyers, and a portal to other online sources. FindLaw was started in 1995 by two attorneys as a list of Internet resources compiled for a workshop of the Northern California Law Librarians. Since then, both its content and its research capabilities have developed and currently it is part of the West legal publishing empire. FindLaw provides an impressive portal to both federal and state law. Their list contains more than 50,000 human-edited legal site listings.

They also provides access to their own legal electronic archive. FindLaw put together its own electronic repository of Supreme Court decisions, dating back to 1893. They are electronic copies of the decisions published in the official United States Reports. For example, the FindLaw text for Roe v.Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), is taken directly from United States Reports, though it does not include the pagination. FindLaw contains opinions issued by the California Supreme Court and by the California Appellate Court since 1934, with the pagination from the official California state reporters.

d) Recent court decisions are generally available through that court’s own website. Federal courts tend to be better equipped to deal with electronic archiving of their opinions than state courts. The United States Supreme Court site [5] is easily accessible. To the list of those e-resources mentioned before, I will add Oyez [6]. The Oyez Project is a multimedia archive which “aims to be a complete and authoritative source for all audio recorded in the Court since the installation of a recording system in October 1955,” in addition to free access to the Court’s cases. Another e-resource for the Court’s cases is Justitia, [7] powered by Google.

The fee-based digital legal aggregates Lexis, Westlaw, and Bloomberg Law also cover federal and state case law. With the advent of Bloomberg Law, the competition has only accelerated. Westlaw and Lexis both try to incorporate the menu driven features of Bloomberg Law into their next generation sites. A somewhat recent alternative to case law research is Fastcase, which charges only a fraction of what the other proprietary databases charge for downloading or printing a case ($5).

Cheaper alternatives are Loislaw, Versus Law and Casemaker.

The future will tell how many fee-based databases American lawyers can support financially.