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Availability of U.S. Case Law

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A researcher at Stanford compiled a database of U.S. case law. The database can be found at: http://webpolicy.org/category/empirical-law/legal-data/. Here are my comments.

Not so long ago, this collection would have been priceless. 10-15 years ago there was an article in Wired about efforts to obtain access to case law, which was pretty much locked down by West Publishing and Lexis/Nexis. So a few comments:

1) To make this set usable from a practical point of view you have to know when it starts and finishes. “[E]very federal court ruling” is a bold statement. Federal Reporter Third? All 1000 volumes of F2d? What about the original Federal Reporter? F.Supp.? Not all federal district court decisions are published. Since our federal courts have become criminal courts (starting in the 1980’s) most of the written decisions will be at the appellate level. What about “Do Not Publish” opinions? There are thousands of them and they are still useful. Usually only DoJ has copies.

2) Not having everything is not critical to the practical value of the set. In the 1990’s a West salesman would tell you that there was no need to buy anything before 500 F2d if you were trying to put together a small federal library. For most states they would try to sell you everything, except perhaps New York, California and few others. The issue is updating. Florida updates (or used to) its appellate decisions on a monthly basis. You could sign up and they would send you a zip file every month. I don’t know if all states do this. The problem of recency is a major one. A case could have been decided yesterday but you won’t find out about it for a month. You can fix the problem on appeal–theoretically, assuming a client who wants to pay–because judges will not, except in rare cases, revisit older decisions they have made because case law that was not available at the time was dispositive.

3. The issue of citing to a particular page of a decision in addition to the official citation is not a huge problem. In many states, appellate decisions are relatively short and court rules have provided for the use of just the official citation. Cites to new Westlaw and Lexis cases do not have page numbers. When page numbers are unavailable, you can cite them as ( U.S. )(2014) [my Blue Book syntax is probably a little off here). If you cite an unpublished opinion you normally have to provide the judge and your counterparty a copy of the decision.

4. FLITE was the U.S. Air Force’s effort to computerize case law in the 1980’s. Westlaw and Lexis fought ferociously to prevent this database from being released to the public. They were successful. The same is the case with JURIS, a DoJ caselaw database. Now there are several providers (such as Fastcase) which compete with Westlaw and Juris. Access to PACER, the U.S. courts database of case, is limited. Efforts to mass download the database have been frustrated. The courts use PACER as a revenue tool. Also, criminal cases at the district court level are not on PACER (unless this has changed) supposedly to protect informants. So it would be interesting to know how this database was obtained.

5. Putting aside the practical value of this database, once the extent of the content is established, it could have real value for researchers. Could it be used to spot trends in the law? I wonder what might be shown if tools to measure things like historical market performance were used to analyze the database. You could see all sorts of data points for terms like “Dalkon Shield” or “asbestos” occurring within specific time ranges. There is definitely a “me too” aspect to the law. And while judges make law all the time, they have no control (usually) over the cases brought to them. Do cases involving “terrorists” match the pattern of cases involving “communists”? Or, say in the period 1910-1920, “Germans”? On a practical level, what is the statistical incidence of cases involving the Statute of Frauds? The “ancient document” exception to the hearsay rule? Are criminal conversation causes of action really coming back? If historically the incidence of data points A, then B always led to C can an analysis of such points today of any use in predicting future decisions?
Just a few thoughts.

Written by mokane

January 9, 2014 at 4:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , , ,

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