of U.S. Supreme Court opinions runs from 1790 to present.
Enter a Supreme Court
case citation, and you will find
it, including some earlier decisions
reported in U.S. Reports. But, as law librarians David McFadden and
Kent Olson discovered, you cannot retrieve cases decided prior to
1908 or between the years, 1945 and 1975, with a keyword query.
The question presented to the group pertained to strategy for
finding cases involving a particular judge or attorney. The
requirement to include a keyword seemed to
complicate the task,
especially since the search form allows for entering a litigant's, judge's or
formulating the query with propriety Lexis syntax. For example,
searching opinionby(name) as a keyword
finds decisions written by the
judge whose name you enter. You might have to run several queries
with different date restrictions because LexisONE limits retrieval
to 100 cases per search.
involves entering a keyword that will always appear in a case; for
example, court or opinion. Then use the search limits
(litigant, judge, attorney) to find decisions
involving a particular judge or
lawyer. However, because the LexisONE
qualifier for "judges" retrieves cases heard by a particular
judge -- whether or not the judge wrote the opinion
-- it actually yields
broader results than the more precise query Olson recommended.
But when McFadden tried these strategies, he discovered he couldnít
find key U.S. Supreme Court cases, such as Plessy v. Ferguson
(1896) or Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).
Additional keyword queries, such as public education,
right to remain silent, or the single term, discrimination,
found gaping holes in the search results. Some queries limited to
the years, 1945 to 1974, found no cases at all.
A spokesperson for
LexisNexis said the company began investigating the problem as soon as
it learned of the LAW-LIB discussion.
"We have discovered that
the underlying structure of our Supreme Court databases changed
recently, due to the size of the
databases. This change did not have an impact on our for-fee
customers, but it was not properly translated into the LexisONE
display. We are in the process of making the appropriate corrections
so our LexisONE users will have access to the full date range of the
Supreme Court opinions. We expect this correction to be made over
This morning, however, the trouble affecting the
database remains uncorrected.
Technical glitches could plague any
online service, whether
free or not. But when they corrupt a portion of
a database, or cause a
single feature to
malfunction, they may go undetected for a while. Had
McFadden not puzzled over the missing key cases he knew existed,
the problem might not have been brought to light
quickly. And if it hadnít,
professionals conducting business critical
have had one option for avoiding potential disaster -- verification
through some other means.
At the risk of belaboring this point, I ask readers to recall the consequences of
unverified research performed a few years ago by a Johns Hopkins
doctor. His task was to discover whether there were any known
potentially harmful affects in using the chemical, Hexamethonium, as
an inhaler for asthma patients. His research found none, and later,
an asthma study patient died. According to Baltimore Sun
news accounts (search
the Baltimore Sun archives for hexamethonium), though, evidence of a link
between the drug and lung damage existed in medical articles published during the 1950s.
Don't let bad research habits hide critical
information. Verification might not always save a life, but it might
save your case.