offers full-text U.S. case law

By | 5 June 2009

We have recently learned of a new website that offers free access to a substantial body of the case law of the U.S. federal courts:

The website contains published reports only, but these amount to many thousands of cases.  The cases are from United States Reports (U.S.) and from the Federal Reporter (F., F.2d, and F.3d), though coverage of the latter is not yet complete.  At present (early June 2009), Vols. 96-300 of the first series and Vols. 1-177 of the second series of the Federal Reporter are not yet included, but I assume these gaps will soon be filled.

The initial OpenJurist screen currently has a selection of the judicial opinions of Sonia Sotomayor, the appellate judge who has been nominated to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Supreme Court.  I hope that important news, with appropriate links, will be a regular feature.

Browse searches and keyword searches can be used to find cases.  However, it would be difficult to find a specific case by browsing unless one knows the citation.  There is no alphabetical table of cases.  Rather, one browses the published volumes by volume number and page number.  And, even then, it is necessary to look at the list of volumes or pages with great care.  One-digit, two-digit and three-digit numbers are sometimes (though not always) interfiled based on the digits as they appear from left to right.  Thus in 264 F.2d, page 24 is listed in between page 238 and page 240.  There are also some numbers that seem to be listed in an entirely random way.

Keyword searching is carried out using a Google Custom Search application.  However, to avoid an unmanageably long list of results, it is often advisable to use Google Advanced Search.  In particular, when searching for a case by name, the names of the parties can be prefixed by  allintitle:  (note the colon).  Thus  allintitle: “new york times” sullivan  yields the two decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.  One is a memorandum decision and the other is the decision on the merits of the case.  Without  allintitle:  the case is buried in a list, five screens long, that also includes all of the federal cases that cite it.  Unfortunately, OpenJurist does not offer any advice or instructions about limiting the search to case name, so, in practice, this option is available only to those users who are already familiar with Google Advanced Search.

It is also worth noting that there are some surprising anomalies in the description of the courts that are covered.  The coverage is said to include “federal appellate courts — beginning in 1880”.  It’s actually a little more complicated than that.  The Federal Reporter, from which the cases are taken, originally covered all of the lower federal courts, i.e. trial courts as well as appellate courts; and it was only in 1933, when the Federal Supplement was started (with coverage from 1932), that first-instance decisions were transferred to that publication, with the Federal Reporter thenceforth reserved for appellate decisions.

Even more surprisingly, the coverage is said to include the “United States Supreme Court — beginning in 1754 when it was known as the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania”.  This is clearly wrong.  The Supreme Court was created by the United States Constitution which was put into effect in 1789, with the Court holding its first session in 1790.  It is not a successor to any other court, and it was never known by any other name.  This is not an obscure legal technicality, but a basic historical fact which I would have expected most Americans to have learned in their history classes in secondary school.

The misunderstanding presumably arises from an interesting anomaly in United States Reports.  This series, which is the official reporter of decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, was inaugurated in 1875.  However, the first contemporaneous volume was designated Vol. 91, so that the earlier nominate reports of Supreme Court decisions could be given retrospective “U.S.” volume numbers.  The earliest nominate volumes, edited by Dallas, also contain decisions from other courts, and Vol. 1 of Dallas (now 1 U.S.) (which, interestingly, does not contain any decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court) includes retrospective notes of decisions of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania going back to 1754.

OpenJurist will undoubtedly be of great value to the many people who do not have access to databases such as Lexis and Westlaw.  It is unfortunate that the individuals who created OpenJurist are not clearly identified because, despite the (correctable) anomalies that I have described, they deserve great credit for what they have done.  The guiding principle of OpenJurist is that “the laws of the land . . . should be accessible by the public without restriction and especially without charge.”  OpenJurist has made a substantial contribution toward realizing that goal.

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