Computer Counselor - September 2000
More and More Legal Information Is Available Free on the Web
Case law research is still limited, but free resources keep growing
by Carole Levitt
Carole Levitt is an attorney and president of Internet For Lawyers, an Internet legal research training and seminar company.
The federal and California courts have been increasing their Internet presence, but they still do not offer what attorneys want most: free, key word, case law research. The good news is that the court sites offer a multitude of other free resources to assist attorneys in the practice of law, including court forms and court rules. Even better, other Web sites have begun to offer free key word research in case law. Though the date coverage of the free sites may not be as deep as that of the pay sites, the free sites are certainly a good place to research current case law.
To perform key word research of Supreme Court cases, the last place to look is the Court's official site (found at www.supremecourtus.gov/), the launch of which was years behind even California's state trial courts. The Court's site lacks a search engine and, as a result, the ability to perform full text keyword searching. Even if a search engine were available, research would be limited to the current term's opinions only. Nor can users search by party name or docket number. However, the Court's official site contains practice information, providing forms and instructions for admission to the Court, case handling guides about how to prepare a petition for writ of certiorari, and access to the Court's rules, orders, calendars, and schedules.
Fortunately, attorneys have other options for free, full text, key word research of the Court's cases. Two of the better free sites are Findlaw.com and Lexisone.com. In July, Lexis debuted Lexisone.com, enabling attorneys to search its entire U.S. Supreme Court archive (reaching back to 1790). Registration is required to use the site, but it is free. Until Lexisone.com's debut, Findlaw was the only site offering U.S. Supreme Court full text, key word searching for free. Findlaw's database reaches back to 1893 (http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/supreme.html).
The Findlaw and Lexisone.com search engines are wonderfully robust. Users may search for cases at both sites by linking key words or phrases together with connectors ("and," "or," or "not"-e.g., "civil rico not Puerto Rico"). Words or phrases can also be searched with proximity connectors. For example, Lexisone.com allows for placing search terms in proximity of 1 to 255 words of each other by using the proximity connector "w/n." "Internet w/2 technology" will retrieve cases with the word "Internet" within two words of the word "technology." Findlaw's proximity connector is "near" and indicates that search terms must be within 50 words of each other.
To retrieve cases with the word "negligent" or "negligence" in Lexisone.com's database, users add the "!" wild card to the root of the word (e.g., "negligen!"). For Findlaw wild card searching, use the "*" as a wild card (e.g. "negligen*").
Both sites also offer searching by party name or citation, but only Lexisone.com offers the ability to limit searching by date, counsel's name, or judge's name.
Conveniently, Findlaw highlights the search terms in the cases it retrieves. This offers users the opportunity to skim the case for the selected terms. This option is not offered at Lexisone.com. Neither site prints a "clean" copy of the case; instead, both have logos and advertisements at the top of the page. For those who want to verify that a case is still good law, Lexisone.com offers a link to its for-pay Shepards database, and Findlaw links for free to U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Court of Appeals cases that cite to the retrieved U.S. Supreme Court case. For those who lack a Lexis account, searching the Shepards database ($4 per cite) or any of the other pay portions of Lexis ($9 per search) immediately from the free site is possible with credit card registration.
Like the U.S. Supreme Court's official opinions site, the Ninth Circuit's official opinions site (www.ca9.uscourts.gov/) is limited in its date coverage (back to 1995) and its search capabilities (date or docket number searching only, no key word searching). Opinions are posted at noon on the day they are released. The Ninth Circuit site, however, is replete with useful information for practitioners, ranging from free access to forms, press releases, the court calendar, and general orders to federal and local circuit court rules. For a free key word search of U.S. Court of Appeals opinions the researcher should use Findlaw or Lexisone.com. Both sites also post opinions the same day that they are released. Findlaw's Ninth Circuit archive (www.findlaw.com/casecode/courts/9th.html) reaches back to July 1, 1990, four years further than Lexisone.com's. To search the Ninth Circuit at Lexisone.com, users click on Federal Cases, highlight Select a Source to Search and then select the Ninth Circuit.
Each of the federal district courts has its own Web site. The Central District site provides access to filing procedures, court forms (which can be downloaded as a WordPerfect 6.1 document or PDF), general orders, judge's requirements, and local rules. Additionally, a free optical scanning program enables attorneys to receive judgments and orders via e-mail or fax within minutes of the court's scanning.
Free slip opinions for California's Central District are available only at the official Web site (www.cacd.uscourts.gov). However, the database, which goes back only to 1998, is incomplete because not all judges contribute their opinions. The site also lacks a search engine, so there is no key word searching (or even searching by party name or docket number). Finally, opinions are listed in no discernable date order. Findlaw and Lexisone.com do not offer any access to federal district court cases.
Unlike the Central District, the other California district court sites do not post any opinions for free online access. All the district court Web sites provide information about Pacer, the online subscription system used to retrieve civil and criminal dockets. The Eastern District and the Southern District (at www.caed.uscourts.gov/ and www.casd.uscourts.gov/, respectively) will send judgments by fax; the Northern District (www.cand.uscourts.gov/) is studying e-filing and is the only district to provide interactive forms; and the Central District's Bankruptcy Court site (www.cacb.uscourts.gov/) provides access to forms, rules, and the Bankruptcy Code. The Southern District (http://ecf.casb.uscourts.gov/) is the only bankruptcy court in California to provide free dockets. Click on Public Query to search by case number or social security number. Party name searching is offered on the menu, but it does not work.
California State Law
For links to all California state courts that have Web sites, users can go to the state courts' official site at www.courtinfo.ca.gov/. At the official California Court Opinions site (www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions), the California Supreme Court posts its opinions immediately after filing and the court of appeal posts within a few hours. Unfortunately, the opinions go back only 100 days, and there is no search engine to enable users to search by key words, docket number, or party name. Cases are simply listed in date order. While Findlaw's California opinions database, at http://california.findlaw.com/ca02_caselaw/slip.html, goes back further than the official site and boasts a search engine to locate court opinions by date, docket number, or party name, it too lacks key word searching. Lexisone.com, however, offers free key word searching of California state opinions (and all other states). Like Findlaw, Lexisone.com's state court archive reaches back to July 1, 1996, but it is not as up-to-the-minute as the official site or Findlaw's site because opinions are posted a day after they are issued.
In addition to slip opinions, the California Supreme Court and appellate court sites provide rules, procedures, oral argument calendars, minutes, judicial profiles, and California Judicial Council court forms-for free-at www.courtinfo.ca.gov/forms/. Lawyers can search the forms by category or form number, review recent form changes only, or download an entire set in a compressed format. While the Judicial Council forms can be printed from any computer that has Adobe Acrobat Reader, they, like most other free court forms, cannot be completed interactively. Users who want to use forms that can be filled out interactively may visit, for a fee, www.accesslaw.com. Lawyers will also want to watch the Daily Journal's Web site (now being tested) for interactive court forms.
Any good researcher knows that although reading case law is imperative, reading the briefs underlying the case adds insight into each side's arguments and offers lawyers more ammunition. Computer users who want to read U.S. Supreme Court briefs from 1999 to date for free can access Findlaw at http://supreme.findlaw.com/supreme_court/briefs/; Lexis (www.lexis.com), Westlaw (www.westlaw.com/), and Briefserve.com (www.briefserve.com/) provide access to earlier U.S. Supreme Court briefs, but not for free. At the state level, Westlaw currently provides California Supreme Court briefs back to 1999. Briefserve.com plans to load California Supreme Court and court of appeal briefs from 1996 to date onto its site by September. Each brief will cost $25.
To access county trial court Web sites, click on Trial Courts at the California court site (www.courtinfo.ca.gov/cacourts) and select the desired county from a menu listing 38 of the 58 counties. Every county has a separate site, and content can differ widely. Tentative decisions, local court rules, fee schedules, forms, a list of judges, and court locations represent some of the information found at the Los Angeles Superior Court site. Free access to dockets is rare at any court level, but especially so at the state trial court level. In June 2000, however, without fanfare, the Los Angeles Superior Court's docket site appeared online for free. The link is labeled Civil Registers Gen Jurisdiction on the court's home page at http://lacountycourts.co.la.ca.us/. Date coverage is not noted at the site. While trial court docket sheets can only be searched by docket number, once the sheet is retrieved, attorneys can view information regarding the case name, the parties involved, the attorneys of record, the list of documents filed, and the dates of all proceedings.
To access Los Angeles Municipal Court dockets, users may go to the Trial Courts of Los Angeles County home page (www.latrialcourts.org/default.htm), click on Civil On-Line, and then choose L.A. Municipal Court Civil On-Line (www.latrialcourts.org/civilon.htm). The site is still in a pilot mode and resembles a calendar more than a docket.
Researchers can visit Webcourt (http://webcourt.co.la.ca.us/) for the dockets of all other judicial districts within Los Angeles County. At Webcourt, users will find a more complete docket system than that of the Los Angeles Municipal Court pilot site. E-filing applications are also available at http://webtraffic.co.la.ca.us/efiling/.
California state appellate court dockets (http://appellatecases.courtinfo.ca.gov) can be searched from a variety of avenues: by trial court or appellate court case number, case caption, attorney's name, or party name. Attorneys can register for automatic e-mail notification. The First Appellate District launched its docket site in January, and all districts except the Fifth launched in June. The FAQ at http://appellatecases.courtinfo.ca.gov/help/faqGeneral01.cfm?dist=1 list the date coverage of each district and the content at each district's docket site.
The Internet does not yet offer comprehensive, free, full text, case law searches by key word, but it is rapidly becoming the place to search current opinions for free. Additionally, it is rapidly becoming the place to gain entry into the virtual courthouse by providing attorneys with access to court rules, forms, dockets, filing procedures, e-mail delivery of documents from the court, and even some e-filing opportunities. Lawyers who have not recently visited the Internet should take another look.