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1.8 Million US Court Rulings Now Online 94

Posted by samzenpus
from the star-wars-kid-v.-lol-cats dept.
I Don't Believe in Imaginary Property writes "For a long time now, lawyers and any serious law students have been bound to paid services like LexusNexis for access to case law, but that is slowly changing. Carl Malamud has posted free electronic copies of every U.S. Supreme Court decision and Court of Appeals ruling since 1950, 1.8 million rulings in all, online for free. While the rulings themselves have long been government works not subject to copyright, courts still charge several cents per page for copies and they're inconvenient to access, so lawyers usually turn to legal publishers which are more expensive but more convenient, providing helpful things like notes about related cases, summaries of the holdings, and information about if and when the case was overturned. This free database is not Carl's first, either. He convinced the SEC to provide EDGAR, and helped get both the Smithsonian and Congressional hearings online."
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1.8 Million US Court Rulings Now Online

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  • And the response... (Score:5, Informative)

    by daveschroeder (516195) * on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @02:20PM (#22477632)
    ...from Thomson, the provider of Westlaw services:

    http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/letter_to_west_response.pdf [resource.org]

    Seems a pretty reasonable response to his initial query:

    http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/letter_to_west.pdf [resource.org]

    Thus, Thomson is justified in asserting copyright on materials which represent unique, original, or significant contributions to the content, and does not assert any copyright whatever on material which is in the public domain.

    And if this work helps provide greater access information which is already publicly, but not easily, available, then it's a Good Thing.

    But Westlaw and LexisNexis do a lot more than just make case law available online. There is a lot of editorial work, summarizing, organization, not to mention costs often imposed by the courts themselves, and Carl Malamud correctly acknowledges that.

    • http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/letter_to_west_response.pdf
      Holy crap! A legalese laced letter a mere mortal can comprehend!
  • So.... (Score:5, Funny)

    by fictionpuss (1136565) * on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @02:26PM (#22477700)
    Now that lawyers can access without charge documents created from the public purse, when should we expect to see these savings trickle down to the public as reduced legal fees?
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      You won't. They'll trickle upward as increased profit margins.
    • Re:So.... (Score:5, Informative)

      by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @02:35PM (#22477864) Homepage
      Lawyers will not use these services much, they will continue to use annotated and commented editions. This is more a victory for the common man who wants to better understand the machinery of U.S. law and justice.
      • by biolitch (1242242)
        And the common man will need access to these if there have already been 1.8 million court cases.
        • And the common man will need access to these if there have already been 1.8 million court cases.
          Hmm...

          The US Constitution was enacted in 1787 -- 220 years ago.

          There are three levels of federal court, including 94 District Courts. Each Court can have more than one judge -- but even if there wasn't, that only leaves each court about 88 cases per year -- that is, one every four days.

          And that's not counting the Appellate courts, or SCOTUS itself.

          • by treeves (963993)
            FYI, it looks like the database goes back to 1880, not back to 1787. But that means one every other day.
            I'd guess that the number of cases per day plotted on a graph over time, since 1787, looks a lot like the infamous hockey stick graph, or at least like a scimitar.
      • Re:So.... (Score:4, Informative)

        by spiritraveller (641174) on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @04:45PM (#22479842)

        Lawyers will not use these services much, they will continue to use annotated and commented editions. This is more a victory for the common man who wants to better understand the machinery of U.S. law and justice.
        This is very true. In my solo practice, I tried so hard to make use of the free materials that my state bar makes available online. The system is called Casemaker, and it's actually quite good. But as good as it is, it doesn't come close to what Westlaw provides.

        With Westlaw (and Lexis as well), every case has a little symbol in the top left corner. If it is green, it is probably good law. If it is red, then the case is no longer good for at least one point of law. Considering the amount of time that this feature saves, it is well worth the $120 a month that I pay to another law firm to use one of their Westlaw passwords. In fact, if I were to deal directly with West, I would pay at least $200 a month and they would lock me in to a 12 month contract. Other lawyers gladly sign up.

        When you think about how much energy it takes to categorize and flag every single case that comes out and cross-reference it with a semi-subjective interpretation of how it treats all the cases that it cites, and to categorize every single paragraph in a case for the specific legal question that it covers, these services are well worth the cost.

        If it were just the text of the cases and statutes, then it would be a rip-off. But the text of the cases and statutes are almost always available for free from other sources. Every state government should provide its statutes and caselaw online for free. As far as I know, most of them do. The same is true of the Federal system. But it's hard to make significant use of that if you don't have any of the tools that are available in a good law library. Westlaw and Lexis are like a law library at your fingertips.
    • Re:So.... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by MaceyHW (832021) <`maceyhw' `at' `gmail.com'> on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @03:05PM (#22478280)
      You get what you pay for -just look at the quality of the free editing of that summary. lexisnexis; "any serious law students"; "free online copies . . . for free".
    • Never. You're actually going to pay more now that they've increased the number of keystrokes expended per day online. Gotta cover the cost of those replacement keyboards, you know; a million lawyers banging away at a million keyboards...
  • No search feature (Score:5, Informative)

    by lib3rtarian (1050840) on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @02:29PM (#22477766)
    I think this is a great idea, but from the brief glance at the site that I took, it would appear that is has absolutely no search feature at all. LexusNexxus and the other sites have sophisticated search features. 1.8 million records stored in 1000 pdfs is more or less worthless IMO.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I think this is a great idea, but from the brief glance at the site that I took, it would appear that is has absolutely no search feature at all. LexusNexxus and the other sites have sophisticated search features. 1.8 million records stored in 1000 pdfs is more or less worthless IMO.
      I expect someone will use something like Nutch [apache.org] to index and make this searchable pretty soon.
    • Re:No search feature (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Foobar of Borg (690622) on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @02:49PM (#22478036)

      I think this is a great idea, but from the brief glance at the site that I took, it would appear that is has absolutely no search feature at all.
      True, but this is just the beginning. A way to search court documents, track the legal history of the case itself and whether or not all or part of the decision was overturned would make a great open source project.
      • by wrastler (996175)
        While you're at it, please thoroughly annotate everything in detailed semantic markup, and provide an inference engine that can answer questions like "How can I get the search thrown out where they found the bodies in my trunk?"
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Teancum (67324)
        If this doesn't have "new wiki project" written all over it, I don't know what else could.

        While 1.8 million records does seem like quite a bit, Wikipedia (at least the English edition) has close to that many articles.

        The real question would be this: What kind of person would be interested in digging into case histories and provide the meta linking information in order to make this sort of information useful?

        Next question: What sort of skills would be necessary to make this happen? I know you don't necessa
    • Re:No search feature (Score:4, Interesting)

      by layer3switch (783864) on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @03:38PM (#22478762)
      search for keyword...
      http://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Abulk.resource.org%2Fcourts.gov%2F+Google [google.com]

      or search PDF file...
      http://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Abulk.resource.org%2Fcourts.gov%2F+filetype%3Apdf+Google [google.com]

      I think, it's a compromise until there is a better way.
    • Don't worry ... the Google spider will crawl his site eventually, if it hasn't already.
  • I wonder how fast he's going to get sued by the legal publishers that the article refers to as "more expensive", and thus quite successful and profitable?
    • by Improv (2467) <pgunn@dachte.org> on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @02:41PM (#22477954) Homepage Journal
      Probably never Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw are mainly used for the additional value they provide beyond the plain content of each case. Until and unless he determines a way to provide something similar and duplicate the effort of all the people working for LN and Westlaw that do that work, there's not a lot of real competition.
      • by metalcoat (918779)
        Why not a wikipedia type summarization idea? User submitted summarizations etc. I do understand, that you would not want to use this summarization in court, or a published paper, but you get the idea.
        • Re:New Court Ruling (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Improv (2467) <pgunn@dachte.org> on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @03:36PM (#22478740) Homepage Journal
          That would be interesting, although there may be a cost - just as Wikipedia is presumably injuring traditional encyclopedia efforts, such a summary "by the masses" may injure LN and Westlaw - not that these companies are good in themselves, but the possibility of unqualified opinion and wikiculture impacting law may be an unpleasant risk. LN and Westlaw have a huge impact on the practice of law today (even as they are largely invisible to those outside the field). Wiki technology is great, and given an appropriate cultural setting and controls it can produce wonderful results (MediaWiki, for example, is widely deployed in various businesses as a tool for knowledge retention/content creation). If there were a way to get qualified people to lead content creation as you suggest and produce quality at least as high as LN or Westlaw, that would be positive, but given that it would be open, anything created (good or bad) would likely kill the commercial industry when it got big enough. If the same cultural struggles present on Wikipedia (particularly the anti-elitism) were to take place on what eventually is to be the primary source of legal interpretation (and fact) for most law in the United States, the US legal system will have a time of troubles. If it were to do better than Wikipedia (and LN and Westlaw) to enough of an extent, it would be fantastic.
          • but the possibility of unqualified opinion and wikiculture impacting law may be an unpleasant risk... ). If there were a way to get qualified people to lead content creation as you suggest and produce quality at least as high as LN or Westlaw, that would be positive...

            I found a group of highly knowledgable legal experts [slashdot.org] who don't mind sharing their expertise online for free.

          • by Teancum (67324)
            The real worry, at least in terms of a legal profession, is that an informed electorate with access to these precedents could start to question the legal profession from the outside with hard and specific examples. Changes in the legal profession wouldn't happen immediately or be revolutionary, but there would be an impact when you have lawyers dealing with clients who know more about the case law in a narrow scope of the law than they do themselves.

            For myself, anything that can help to provide for a bette
            • by Improv (2467)
              I don't think it's likely that many people, rare intellectuals aside, will be able to grasp the entire context law is to be interpreted in - just like with the sciences, it's easy for a layperson to think they understand something, but often if they were to "confront" a professor they'd find their understanding is broken. This would not always happen, but I've sometimes seen yahoo philosopher types go up to psychology professors and try to say something definite... sometimes it's funny to watch even as we c
    • I wonder how fast he's going to get sued by the legal publishers that the article refers to as "more expensive", and thus quite successful and profitable?

      These businesses already have had some competition for years and it's still available so unless he copies what they offer directly, summaries and such, I don't think it's very likely he'll be sued. Findlaw does this, for instance searching for "John Gilmore" [findlaw.com] has the ruling in his case as well as commentary on it.

      Falcon

  • yay (Score:5, Funny)

    by pak9rabid (1011935) on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @02:38PM (#22477902)
    Now I can pretend to be a real lawyer, as opposed to a slashdot lawyer.
  • But I know how to thumb though copies!

    I don't see this being used in court, but it's a great resource as much as the public law library is. Law students, people who wish to defend themselves, or just with a strong curiosity can now have a better starting point, if not a better understanding
    • by KiahZero (610862)
      Perhaps I'm just spoiled by my particular school, but I don't pay for Westlaw or LexisNexis. In fact, vendors from both companies routinely throw themselves at myself and my classmates to convince us to use their service.
      • I don't pay for them either. The University's library has subscribtions for students to LexisNexis and Westlaw and the other databases like them. I would've thought this would be standard at any major institution. I think I'd be pretty pissed if I had to pay for a subscribtion on top of my mounting university fees.
  • FindLaw? (Score:2, Insightful)

    So how is this different than http://www.findlaw.com/ [findlaw.com] ? I've been using that free site to look through cases ranging from the Supreme Court to individual State courts.
  • Simply copies of the decisions which were published by the aforementioned courts, then they are as valid as those published by either West or Thompson and can be used in court. Of course you don't get the luxury of the Key Notes, or cross references, but hey, most of the time you only want specific quotes and positions from the body of the decision anyway.
  • And now electronic publication of all legal rulings online is mine!

    My, the USPTO is gullible.
  • by to_kallon (778547) on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @02:44PM (#22477986)
    paid services like LexusNexis

    it's actually LexisNexis [lexisnexis.com].
  • Most courts have law libraries that are open to the public, including free (albiet limited) access to Lexis and/or Westlaw. Seems a better option that perusing thousands of pages of unsearchable data. Still, I applaud the effort to make this stuff accessible from anywhere. Can a legal search engine be the next bit open source project?
    • by afidel (530433)
      It's only unsearchable today, give it a few weeks until someone OCR's the whole bunch and creates a searchable index. I'm not sure if there's a suitable open source OCR engine but there are plenty of commercial engines that can take an image PDF and output a PDF with both the image and the results of the OCR process as an additional underlying layer. Those files can easily be indexed by a multitude of open source indexing engines like Lucerne.
  • by fishwallop (792972) on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @02:59PM (#22478174)

    Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis have similar subscription case reporters in Canada, where they cooexist peacefully with this free site [canlii.ca], where you can freely search and read most "recent" Canadian case law (e.g. from the mid 1990s to date), as well as some older important appellate cases. The paid services have more "editorial content" such as detailed headnotes and cross-referencing to commentary.

    The single most important thing lawyers want, other than the case itself, is to know what other cases say about it: which subsequent authorities cite the case, and why? The ability to "note up" a case ("Quickcite" on Lexis-Nexis Canada, "Shepardizing" in Westlaw-speak) to see at a glance if it has been followed, overturned or otherwise commented on is a critical feature for any online repository of case law. Until Malamud's site does this it's not true competition to the subscription sites.

  • Good to hear, but... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ChePibe (882378) on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @03:02PM (#22478216)
    As a law student, I'm glad to hear these things are now public. They've always been in the public domain - just never published like this, at least that I'm aware of.

    But Lexis and Westlaw will remain exceedingly important and worth their fees. Publishing cases is one thing - publishing the proprietary information that Lexis and Westlaw add (headnotes, the West Key system, Shepard's citations, treatises, and countless other secondary sources) would truly make this useful for attorneys. Of course, maintaining all of these sources requires a huge effort - and is one of the reasons these databases cost as much as they do. (There are, I'm sure, less savory reasons as well, of course.)

    I wouldn't count on seeing Lexis and Westlaw go belly up soon - an attorney needs much more than the raw cases. But, like I said, this is very positive for the public.
    • by celle (906675)
      Maybe if an attorney had to look at the raw cases all the time there would be a grass roots legal movement to simplify law rather than constantly add to it. Wow, 1.8 million, lets hear it for micromanagement.
      • People sue each other. 1.8 million over a period of 58 years comes to about 31,000 year from a whole lot of courts - not too bad, and not unheard of. If you want to cut down on case law, people will need to stop suing each other. That's not going to happen - and I'm not sure it should. The courts provide a vital means for people to settle disputes without resorting to self-help (i.e. theft, assault, etc.). This isn't even including criminal cases - if you've got a way to stop people committing crimes a
      • Maybe if an attorney had to look at the raw cases all the time there would be a grass roots legal movement to simplify law rather than constantly add to it.

        I propose a new amendment to the Constitution of the USA, all laws have to be written so the average person can read and understand it in 5 minutes.

        Falcon
  • by Christoph (17845) <chris@cgstock.com> on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @03:08PM (#22478320) Homepage Journal

    I got the verdict last Friday in a case I tried myself in federal court: Verdict, Gregerson v. Vilana Financial, Inc. [cgstock.com]

    I'm not sure whether to be proud or embarrassed, but I did all my legal research using Google. The only paid service I used was Pacer, and that only for 2-3 cases. I bought one case from LexisNexis (Pinkham v. Sara Lee, 8th US Circuit), which cost $9.00. In the end, I was awarded $19,462 in damages (and I defeated six claims against me).

    I found most of what I needed at Findlaw.com, www.law.cornell.edu. Specific state cases for Minnesota were at state.mn.us/lawlibrary/. I went to a law library only one time, and they didn't have what I needed, and I never went back.

    I did get advice from an attorney on legal procedure (stuff not in any book). I would have used LexisNexis or West Law if it wasn't so overpriced ($9.00 for one webpage? All because the case was too old to be on Pacer, where it would cost about 18 cents). I'm going to try out this guy's service in the future.

    (a full chronology of my case is here http://www.cgstock.com/essays/vilana [cgstock.com]))

    • by kidgenius (704962)
      Congrats. I remember reading your story a few months ago.
    • by onepoint (301486)
      that was great reading, thumbs up !
    • by jellie (949898)
      Congratulations! I also remember reading your story a while back. The court opinion is quite a fascinating read too. Just curious - how much money did you spend on lawyer's fees and other costs, and how much time did you spend doing research, preparing motions, and being in court?
      • by Christoph (17845)

        Just curious - how much money did you spend on lawyer's fees and other costs, and how much time did you spend doing research, preparing motions, and being in court?

        Lawyer's fees, court costs, service of process, depositions, etc. were around $10,000. How much time? I'm afraid to think. Some weeks were 40 hours, others were zero. Over 2+ years, it was a lot. Of course, the other side spent as much as $100,000 (or more) and they didn't get the courts to shut down my web page.

    • That's actually a very clear case to read. If only they were all so easy. :-)
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @03:10PM (#22478358) Homepage Journal
    Since all these cases are now up, is there enough data in there to finally make a directory of lawyers with batting averages , so I can check whether one is actually any good at my kind of case before I hire them?
    • by jdigriz (676802)
      This is similar to the problem with doctors though. Is a lawyer who wins most of his cases very good, or just very selective about only taking easy cases? A really expert lawyer could be given hard/impossible cases, because he's the only one who has a chance at winning and still lose a lot.

      • by Doc Ruby (173196)
        That's OK. If they take my case, then I'll fit their stats. So the process would be what I'd already do: start with the best rated ones and find the first who'll take my case. If their batting average is too low, then I'll drop it.
    • by ffflala (793437)
      The batting average metaphor doesn't translate directly.

      For starters, these cases are appeals cases in which a written opinion was issued by a court. Most trial court rulings don't wind up getting reviewed on appeal. Most trial lawyers don't practice at the appellate level, also. However the names of attorneys are included in the text of court opinions, and if these .pdfs are indexed you will be able to find them.

      But this ain't baseball.
    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      There is a site that provides close to that info.. http://www.lawyers.com/ [lawyers.com] No batting averages, but there are peer reviews. Thats about as good as you're gonna get with attorneys.. They usually protect their own.
    • Beside the selection issue already mentioned.

      If you want the battling average, who is going to call the strikes and balls?

      I don't know how many opinions you had read, but often it's far from clear who is the "winning" side without extensive research into all the circumstance surround a particular case.

      It's not uncommon for an opinion to end with "Affirmed in part 1,3, 7, reversed in part 2, 4, and 8, with the rest remanded in part to lower court with the following instructions."

      So who really had won? It re
      • by Doc Ruby (173196)
        I think it can be presented in a uniform fashion that can be compared across all lawyers in the DB. One query would be which party prevailed, the first order of magnitude of results. The next would be how many of the proposed remedies were ordered, and then how close any dollar remedies were to that requested.

        The "batting average" doesn't have to be a simple percentage (or "per miles", which is what baseball uses). But it doesn't have to be some great mystery, either. Law firms use formulas internally for r
        • by QuessFan (621029)
          So your strike zone definition will only rate first chair litigators.

          How will your system dealing with cases like the one depicted in "Michael Clayton?"

          The crude systems we have now, self-reporting(by attorneys),

          http://www.verdictsearch.com/index.jsp

          is already expensive enough. I shudder at how the kind of extensive analysis would cost.
          • by Doc Ruby (173196)
            I haven't seen _Michael Clayton_. But there is a small percentage of outliers in a huge amount of data that could be profiled by machine. Maybe it would cost a few hundred thousand dollars to profile that data into ratings as detailed and easy to understand as, say, the car profiles in the Kelly Blue Book. Business with them is worth $billions a year - bad decisions on who to do business with cost a lot more than that. And the ones harder to profile demand more examination anyway than just a batting average
  • I see my summer reading plans are set! Woot!

    They should get Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney to be the site avatar/host now that he's retired.
  • by jshriverWVU (810740) on Tuesday February 19, 2008 @03:28PM (#22478632)
    He should get in contact with Project Gutenberg [gutenberg.org], that would make a nice volunteer and resource center for this project. Both have the same end goal; to get public domain knowledge freely available.
  • IANAL, but I'm about to sound a lot more like one.
  • How much do the other sources of these papers charge? If there isn't a way to search this site and look for one of 1.8 million court rulings then this might be a difficult task.
    It also doesn't seem unreasonable to charge a small fee for online publications, I'm pretty sure that ApJ and the like charge at least a little to access their articles (fortunately for me, this is covered for computers on campus).
  • As someone who tried very hard to study law before attempting to enter law school, I learned that almost all court decisions fall back to previous court decisions, commonly known as case law. It was prohibitively expensive for me to access some (all) of the sites listed in TFS, which was the first step of many that has since caused me to lose faith in the way laws are implemented today.

    Thank you Carl Malamud for doing your part in providing public access to crucial knowledge about our laws!
  • If it's just SCOTUS decisions you're after, Cornell's Legal Information Institute [cornell.edu] has been around for years.
  • Carl Malamud is the best thing since scroll wheels.
  • If only the federal government would puclish the Code of Federal Regulations and United States Code.

    Of course, they would have to live by them, instead of making shit up when they put someone on trial, which is why the federal laws will never be published.

    They claim the laws are online at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/ [gpoaccess.gov] but a search will show that 80% of the CFR and USC are actually missing. This way, a poor schlub is accused of breaking a non-existent law by a para-military storm trooper who is too ignorant to k
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I train LexisNexis and Lexis users. Most of y'all have no idea how powerful and sophisticated the LexisNexis -- and more so, Westlaw -- search engines are. This is a homework problem I used to give: Find several court cases in which the guest of a tenant leaned against a porch rail, fell off the porch when the rail collapsed, and sued the landlord.

    This shouldn't take more than 10 minutes.
  • Oyez [oyez.org] has both the text of Supreme Court decisions and audio recordings of oral arguments. And that's not all! Other features of the site:
    • Justice interments. "Oyez can pinpoint where your favorite Justice is buried, thanks to Google Maps."
    • Oyez baseball. Which major league baseball player is most like Justice Samuel Chase? Take the quiz!
  • It is a good thing to give the public access to these materials. Your average citizen is not going to sign up for Lexis or Westlaw just to do some heavy legal reading. I know that depending on the size of the firm we are easily talking about five figures PER MONTH for those services.

    But when I looked at the website it is obvious that this is not user friendly at all. From what I could tell, the files are either image pdf files or compressed in a tar.bz2 file. I doubt if more than 5% (I am being real genero

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