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Free Case Law Databases


Carole Levitt and Mark Rosch, Editors of Internet Fact Finding For Lawyers


Originally published in Internet Fact Finding For Lawyers, March/April 2008.

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Americal Law Institute | Americal Bar Association logo15 April 2008. Lawyers and other legal professionals generally equate "case law" research with "legal research," looking for cases to serve as precedent to help their case or attack the opposition's case. But the savvy researcher also uses case law research as a fact finding or "backgrounding" tool. For instance, before taking on new clients, you could use case law research to gather some background information, such as whether the potential client might have ever been involved in a lawsuit with a current or past client or whether the potential client ever sued a former attorney—all information important in deciding whether you want to (or whether you can) take the case. To accomplish this type of background research, enter the potential client's name into a case law database. Similarly, you could use your research savvy to find a specific type of expert witness, by searching case law databases with words describing the expertise and adding in the phrase "expert witness" to uncover names of expert witnesses who have testified in cases similar to your case.

For those of you who don't conduct the type of research described above because you can't afford a subscription to a case law database, you'll be interested to know about an early Valentine from Fastcase that remedied this situation. On February 13, 2008, Fastcase announced it created The Public Library of Law, the "largest free law library in the world". See below for full details.

The Public Library of Law (PLoL)

Purpose: Fastcase launched the PLoL "to make it easy to find the law online". With the PLoL, anyone can now conduct a free full-text keyword search of case law for legal, fact finding, and background research (see below for date and jurisdiction limitations).

Screen shot of PLOL

Content: PLoL provides a free full-text keyword-searchable database of case law for:

  • All 50 states' Appellate and Supreme Court cases from 1997 to present

  • All U.S. Supreme Court cases from 1754 to present

  • All Federal Circuit Court of Appeals cases from 1950 to present

PLoL provides links to all 50 states' statutes, constitutions, and court rules, and to selected states' regulations and administrative codes. In addition, PLoL provides links to the U.S. Code, Code of Federal Regulations, and Federal Court Rules.

What is missing from PLoL is access to federal district cases and federal bankruptcy cases. (For those who need access to a free, keyword-searchable database of federal district cases, see the entry for Justia later in this newsletter.)

While anyone can search PLoL free, registration is required to view the full text of cases. The registration process is painless, requiring only your name, e-mail address, password, and occupation.

You can search cases by citation, docket number, party names, or keywords and phrases.

The Advanced Options link offers the ability to limit your search by a date range you specify. It also allows you to limit your search to a specific state's case law, a specific Federal Circuit, or the U.S. Supreme Court. You can't mix and match the court searches, so you couldn't search the U.S. Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit together. Likewise, you couldn't search all federal circuit cases together (but see the entry for Justia later in this newsletter, which does allow you to search all federal circuit cases together at https://law.justia.com/cases/us-court-of-appeals/) or all 50 states' cases together. However, on the basic search page, you can search ALL jurisdictions together.

Screen shot of PLOL's advanced search options

PLoL offers a robust search engine, allowing you to employ Boolean connectors (AND, OR, NOT), phrase searching, wildcard characters (the asterisk), and proximity connectors (such as W/n, which allows you to specify how close together your want your keywords to appear). For instance, you could specify that you wanted the word prayer within 5 words of school by entering your search as prayer w/5 school.

Researchers should read the brief User Guide for more information on searching (http://www.plol.org/Pages/FAQ/UserGuide.pdf).

PLoL also includes a link to the paid content on Fastcase which offers: (1) expanded date coverage; (2) expanded jurisdiction coverage (such as federal district and bankruptcy court cases); (3) more keyword searchable databases than case law (such as statutes and regulations databases); (4) sorting tools; (5) "Authority Check" (to find related authorities); (6) more search options; (7) dual-column printing; and (8) the ability to search multiple jurisdictions at once.

Our View: While PLoL is the most comprehensive free case law database on the Web, it would be more useful if it:

  • Included federal district and bankruptcy cases for free

  • Allowed researchers to select multiple jurisdictions to search instead of just one jurisdiction or just all jurisdictions

  • Expanded the sample searches displayed on the What's the best way to find a particular case link

  • Highlighted keywords in the full-text of the case (instead of only in the results list of annotations)

Researchers will find it a plus that there are hyperlinks to the cases that are referred to in the cases they are currently viewing.

Tips: Before subscribing to Fastcase's expanded paid content (noted above) at a cost of $95 each month, visit your state bar Web site to learn if you already have free access to Fastcase's (or another vendor's) paid content. Many state bar associations have been offering their members access to free case law for several years.

For those who are interested in downloading PLoL's case law, the files have been made available free at http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov for researchers by a joint project of Public.Resource.Org and Creative Commons. In addition to PLoL's data, two other companies have contributed free data to the project: William S. Hein & Co. has contributed 30 volumes of the Federal Cases (pre-Federal Reporter cases) and Justia, Inc. has contributed over 50,000 PACER documents (federal district court cases from 2004 to present).

As we noted above, the PLoL does not offer a full-text keyword-searchable database of federal district court cases. However, Justia.com (https://www.justia.com/) recently launched the first free full-text keyword-searchable database of federal district court cases. But, before we provide details about Justia's federal district court database, we'd like to first introduce you to the complete Justia portal, including its directories and databases other than the district court database.



Purpose: Justia's purpose is to serve as a free legal portal. It provides directories and links to useful legal sites and it also creates and hosts many valuable searchable case law and docket databases.

 Screen shot of Justia

Content: The search box at the top of Justia's homepage allows researchers to keyword search the entire Justia site. Researchers can also narrow their keyword searches by selecting one of the tabs above the search box (e.g. Law Blogs or Legal Podcasts). For those who prefer to browse rather than keyword search, there are two directories below the search box. The first directory, Legal Practice Area, can be browsed by legal topic (e.g. Family Law) and the second directory, Legal Research & Law Practice, can be browsed primarily by jurisdiction (e.g. U.S. Federal Government).

Justia also offers several free searchable databases, such as the U.S. District Court Opinions and Orders (see next entry for details), the U.S. District Court's civil case filings and dockets, the U.S. Court of Appeals Opinions, U.S. Regulation Tracker, and the Supreme Court Center.

All of the Justia databases described below that are full-text searchable by keywords and phrases are powered by Google, so they can be searched the same way you search Google. For example, to find documents that include two or more keywords or phrases, there is no need to insert the AND Boolean connector between each word. Instead, leave a space between each keyword or phrase. This will automatically insert the AND Boolean connector (but it will not be displayed) between the keywords or phrases. To find documents with one or both of the keywords or phrases, place the Boolean connector OR in between the keywords or phrases. The database also allows you to exclude a keyword from your search (the NOT Boolean connector) by placing a minus sign directly to the left of that keyword or phrase (without a space). Phrases must be placed in quotation marks. For example, to search for documents that include the word liability and the phrase negligence per se but exclude the word intentional, your search would be structured like this: liability "negligence per se"-intentional.

Justia's Supreme Court Center database (https://supreme.justia.com) can be searched back to Volume 1 of the U.S. Reports (1791) by keywords, or phrases (which could include a citation (e.g. 1 U.S. 1), party name(s), attorney names, etc.). You can also browse by volume, year, or recent opinions.

Justia's purpose is to serve as a free legal portal. It provides directories and links to useful legal sites and it also creates and hosts many valuable searchable case law and docket databases.

Justia's U.S. Court of Appeals Opinions database (https://law.justia.com/cases/us-court-of-appeals//), which goes back to 1950, has very little documentation because it is in Beta. While the PLoL database allows searching by only one circuit at a time, Justia allows you to search all federal circuits together or just one circuit. Searching is by keywords or phrases (which could include citations (e.g. 1 U.S. 1), party name(s), attorney names, etc.). You can also browse by Federal Reporter series, year, or circuit.

Justia's U.S. Regulation Tracker (https://regulations.justia.com/) allows researchers to track new regulations from specific federal agencies by keywords, date, or agency (https://regulations.justia.com) from 2005 to present. Regulations can also be browsed by agency.

Justia's U.S. District Court's civil case filings and dockets database (https://dockets.justia.com) provides free searching of the federal district court’s civil filings and dockets from 2004 to present. This database is updated multiple times per day. This Justia database can't be searched by keywords and phrases. Instead, it is searched by one or more of the following "field" options: party name, court, date, or lawsuit type. "Lawsuit type" refers to the Nature of the Suit ("NOS"), which is assigned by the court. For example, you could search by the NOS Airplane Product Liability to search all cases relating to that one topic. The database can also be browsed by state, NOS, or case name.

While the opinions and orders noted on the docket sheet are available from Justia, the other underlying documents (complaints, answers, etc.) are not. Researchers are directed to the government's pay database, PACER. (At PACER, one can also search the dockets of the Bankruptcy Court and the U.S. Courts of Appeal.)

Our View: Justia was founded by the original co-founders of FindLaw. (FindLaw was purchased by Thomson/West in 2001). If you are (or were) a FindLaw user, you will find some similarities between the two portals. However, Justia is committed to creating new free legal content (such as the many databases noted above and also noted in the next entry) while FindLaw seems to be only maintaining the free legal content that was already on the site at the time of purchase.

Tip: To keep up to date, Justia visitors can receive free RSS feeds from most of the above databases. For example, researchers can subscribe to RSS feeds for daily regulation updates, for new federal district filings, or for updates to cases that cite any of their Supreme Court case results.

Justia's Federal District Court Opinions and Orders Database

Purpose: Justia offers a free full-text keyword/ phrase-searchable database and a "field" search database of federal district court cases that can be used for legal, fact finding, and background research.

Screen shot of Justia Federal Court Opinions Database

Content: Justia's Federal District Court Opinions and Orders database ( https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/ ) is the only site offering free full-text keyword/ phrase searching and "field" searching of all the U.S. District Courts' available opinions and orders, from 2004 to present. It is updated daily.

There are separate search menus for the full-text keyword/phrase searching and the "field" searching (use one or the other because they can't be used together).

The "field" searching menu is located above the full-text keyword/phrase searching menu. It allows you to search by one or more of the following fields:

  • Party name (optional)

  • Court where cases were filed (e.g. Florida Federal District Courts-All, or Florida Northern Federal District Court, or All Federal District Courts)

  • Lawsuit type (NOS)

  • Date case was filed

  • Date of Opinion/Order

The full-text keyword/phrase searching menu, located below the "field" searching menu, is powered by Google so you can link together keywords or phrases by Boolean connectors. The full-text search can also be limited to a specific district court or expanded to include all district courts.

The cases can also be browsed by NOS, state, or cases. (If you browse by "cases", this will display all cases in reverse chronological order.)

Our View: This is a free database that we have been waiting for since it was rumored that FindLaw would launch such as service before its purchase by Thomson/West in 2001. Needless to say, we are pleased to finally see its launch. It is in Beta, so there is still room for improvement. For example: (1) sample searches should be displayed to illustrate how to structure searches and (2) when you conduct a full-text search, there should be a way to easily return to the list of search results after choosing to display a result in PDF. (If you click on the HTML version you can return to the results, but if you click on the PDF you will have to re-run your search.)

Tip: Researchers can receive free RSS feeds to be alerted to new cases.


© 2008 American Law Institute–American Bar Association
all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Carole Levitt and Mark Rosch are principals of Internet For Lawyers (IFL), a CLE seminar company. They co-authored The Lawyer's Guide to Fact Finding on the Internet, 3rd edition (2006 A.B.A.).


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Created: 15 April 2008
Revised: 9 May 2008 (no text revisions)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/free_case_law_databases.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com