Loads more US caselaw online for free

Rogue archivist Carl Malamud sez, "Public.Resource.Org today released a metric boatload of early federal case law (1880-1923), known as the First Series of the Federal Reporter. The Second and Third series were released earlier this year, as well as the "Federal Cases" which are the precursor the Federal Reporter. We're about 89% of the way towards a complete release of the Courts of Appeals archive." Link to announcement, Link to archive (Thanks, Carl!)

See also:
1.8 million pages of US federal case law to go online for free
Opening up the American lawbooks


  1. I recognize that this is just one step in a larger process, but it’s not, without more, particularly useful. The services that Westlaw and LexisNexis provide are not merely access to this information, but the ability to easily search and cross-check the information in a variety of ways. When looking at old case law, it’s rare that the object is to find a single, known case. It’s more likely that you’re looking for a concept and will need to be able to relatively quickly dig through tens or hundreds or even thousands of cases to find it. Giant PDFs of hundreds of cases isn’t going to make that process any easier than just going to the library and reading the paper versions.

    Releasing this data is good, but someone needs to go in there and organize it for easy, searchable access in a manner at least as usable as Westlaw or LexisNexis do for this to be big boon to anybody doing real legal research.

  2. I agree with Doorframe. I’m an attorney who practices mainly in the area of research and writing. While I certainly agree that caselaw is public information that should be readily available to the public, I see no use in this as it is. The public is already able to go to any courthouse law library and use all of the reference materials to search cases, etc. Without the ability to search, the sheer volume of information makes it useless. If Mr. Malamud comes up with a good search function, however, this could be really valuable.

  3. Well, these items are scanned volumes, so they are not searchable. If you want searchable law, you will have to continue to pay for it.

    Each volume is posted as a massive PDF file, some 30-40 mb in size. That chokes many browsers and will lead to huge bandwidth demands.

    The site’s sponsor has not even created pages with links. Instead all of these items are posted in a bare directory listing.

    This project needs some better thought and organization.

  4. @Yclipse

    Yes, but it’s a start. As it stands now, this archive has no hope of surpassing Westlaw or Lexis in usefulness. Those databases have paid lawyers who pore over every case and create summaries of important points of law decided by certain paragraphs within thousands of cases a month.

    However, this archive is great because legal citation specifies where in a document certain legal precedent may be found. If all federal appellate cases are open and free from one centralized location, judges and lawyers (and Harvard Bluebook writers/editors) might make the transition to permitting (and hopefully requiring, eventually) citations to this format instead of a closed-off Westlaw or Lexis format.

    As it stands, the Bluebook prefers public domain citation to cases when the case is available only in electronic form. Perhaps one day it will prefer/require case citation in public domain citation always.

    Note: Bluebook is the manual of legal citation that has almost complete dominance over the market.

  5. There is a readme on the site that explains that the files are indeed searchable. If you look in each of the directories (e.g., here) you’ll see there is a PDF file for each of the cases.

    But, more importantly, this is a wholesale site, not a retail site. Public.Resource.Org is “liberating” the core data and making it available without restriction. A dozen for-profit and non-profit groups are all working with the data to build sites.

    The legal profession is quick to explain that their needs are unique and are only met with high-priced services from Lexis and West. But, when the cost of the raw data is $500k-many millions, there is a huge barrier to entry, which has resulted in very poor tools serving the legal profession and no tools serving “ordinary” citizens. Our work is as much about innovation as it is about the right of the populace to read the rules of our society.

    I wish more lawyers like those commenting above realized that the legal profession has sadly failed in its obligations to the public at large and many more lawyers need to think more about public service and less about their own personal bottom line.

  6. The obvious (at least to me) solution is to Wikify the indexing of these PDF’s to make them useful.

  7. I wish more lawyers like those commenting above realized that the legal profession has sadly failed in its obligations to the public at large and many more lawyers need to think more about public service and less about their own personal bottom line.

    My above comments (as well as those of others) were only related to the usefulness of this project to us directly. I acknowledged that this was a nice first step, but the project has not yet reached a point where it would be helpful to most people in most situations. In the future, hopefully, this will change, but it hasn’t yet.

    Your seemingly accusatory response is a little bit unsettling. Who exactly are you angry at here? Me? And what does the fact that I don’t see the immediate use in this repository have to do with my commitment to “public service” and my “obligations to the public at large”?

  8. I just felt the need to report that my confused brain keeps reading this headline as “Loads more US coleslaw”… And then keeps wondering why anyone would want it online…

  9. I’m an attorney too, and wanted to add some background.

    As someone already noted, the status quo is that ANYONE who wants to direct an adjudicator to some binding point of law (whether a “self-serving” attorney, a “public interest” attorney, or someone who is representing him or herself) must do so using the page numbers of the official reporter (the published version of the case). These reporters cost money. The most prevalent publisher of these reporters is Thompson West, and Westlaw, the dominant electronic database, is run by the same company. Access to Westlaw is very, very expensive. The most powerful way to remove this cost barrier is to shift from citing by page number, to citing by paragraph number (sometimes called “neutral citation”). A court could then issue the decision with the paragraphs numbered, and boom, an attorney or anyone else has everything he or she needs to authoritatively cite to the point of law desired. But right now, courts are hesitant to shift to this system, probably in large part because all of the old case law hasn’t been published that way. Therefore, the most significant thing about the Open Case Law project is that it is a strong start at creating a comprehensive source for cases that have numbered paragraphs.

    I also don’t understand the hostility towards the attorneys who posted here. Most attorneys are in small firms or work alone. These attorneys will be able to provide better and cheaper services if the cases are freed from the “proprietary” citation system. Furthermore, once all the cases are scanned and in the database, how long do you think it will take the open community to work out a search tool that rivals (and then surpasses) that provided by West/Lexis???? I say it happens very quickly. Once that search tool can search a true database of all the case law needed, with authoritative citations possible (only West and Lexis offer this right now) then there will be much less reason to use the proprietary providers (only their proprietary content, like headnotes, etc., will be unique).

    I for one am very excited for the future.

  10. DoorFrame, WhoKnew – what happens in online discussions is that people post their disagreements. You see a comment, you have a different opinion, you say so. Sometimes when I am replying to a comment I do have the original comment in mind. I have in mind all the other people that may be reading. It’s also very easy to get hijacked by your own frustrations.

    So while I don’t know what CarlMalamud’s intentions really were I would think the odds are they were a mix of all of the above. Don’t take it personally, it’s just the internet.

  11. Whatever. Some lawyers are evil, and some are good.

    Takuan: the number of lawyers in the country is irrelevant to this fact, and until heaven comes again to our physical plane, to there will always be injustice in the world. Blaming one profession for this is blind.

    Noen: I’m aware of how this works, but I think is is specious to say that I should not get offended by something because it was posted online. Airing disagreement is airing disagreement. My sense of the truth is offended by people who condemn all lawyers just as it would be by those who condemn all hippies (or whatever). It’s stereotyping, it disserves the speaker and the listener, and it distorts the truth.

    I’m glad I get offended.

  12. 1,000,000 lawyers in America. One million. 30,000 in Japan

    There’s no need for lawyers in Japan. Everyone confesses immediately and apologizes for any inconvenience that they may have caused.

  13. I always put it down to the Japanese legal process being so horrendous that other option was better

  14. @doorframe, @whoknew …

    Didn’t mean to tar the whole profession as seen through each individual. There are lots of great lawyers doing noble things and helping the world (e.g., lots of lawyers fighting for civil rights, doing legal aid, representing nonprofits pro bono).

    But, the profession as seen through the institutions they’ve created *has* gone badly wrong and that shines particularly bright when it comes to the issue of why we our legal system has become a $10b/revenue stream. It is particularly frustrating to hear what great value-add West and Lexis add for working professionals … if the core data, which is all public domain, were broadly available, much better tools would be available.

  15. I wonder if I’m the only one dislexic enough to read that headline as:

    “Loads more US coleslaw online for free”

  16. see #9 above

    I just did now too, it’s when you scroll quickly.

    The brain seeks patterns. “Coleslaw” is part of people’s lives much more than “caselaw”.

  17. What will most likely happen is some enterprising person will develop a way to data-mine useful information out of these case laws. Like PageRank for case laws. Or maybe contextual tagging?

  18. I may well be a day late and a dollar short for this conversation, but I can’t help but throw in my two cents.

    1. We live in a litigious, entitled society. People have some sort of dispute, and the courts and capitalizing on the problem are the first thing Americans think of. (Sorry for the broad, horribly inprecise generalizations. Of course there are exceptions.) Do most lawyers contribute to the problem? You bet. Are lawyers responsible for the problem as a class? I, for one, don’t think so.

    2. Like Whoknew, I see this project as pure, awesome potential. Sure, it’s not Lexis yet. But give it a year, and somebody will come up with some awesome search tools, I have no doubt. What’s more, the service as it stands is very useful. Of course it’s nice to be able to search for a case you didn’t know existed, but we lawyers look up specific cases more often than we let on. We find cites in legal encyclopedias, practice guides, opposing council briefs, cases we already have, etc., etc. We pay for those, too, especially for those of us who have pay-per-click plans through Lexis or West. My only serious gripe about the Public.Resource.org cases is that there aren’t any page numbers! Surely, the original reporters page numbers must be public domain, too, as the response from West (http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/letter_to_west_response.pdf) seems to roundaboutly suggest. I know we should be using neutral paragraph numbers, but we aren’t. What would be so difficult about throwing the page breaks and numbers in?

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