This post was coauthored by Barbara Bavis.
One of the defining features of the common law system is the emphasis placed on the precedential value of case law. Until recently, case law has not been widely available on the Internet, leaving researchers with no choice but to seek out print reporters and commercial electronic databases to locate cases of interest. This situation has started to change, however, and now researchers have several free, online databases at their disposal. These resources do not replace the use of commercial print and electronic resources, since they are often limited in coverage, do not provide a digest, and do not contain a quick and effective citator, but researchers’ use of free online materials as a starting point can save them time and money. For example, researchers might use these resources to locate cases of interest, write down the citations to these cases, and then take them to a public law library to Shepardize them.
There are several freely-available options for tracking down electronic case law. Some of the most prominent of these are listed below:
Google Scholar offers an extensive database of state and federal cases. Click on the link, select the “legal documents” button, and choose your search terms. You may click on the downward-pointing arrow in the search box to pull up an advanced search that will let you search for a phrase, exclude results with certain terms, etc. You may also search by entering a citation to a case in the search box. After you execute your search, you may use the facets on the left-hand side to narrow your results. One of the most useful facets allows you to narrow by jurisdiction. Select a jurisdiction by clicking “select courts” and then place a check mark next to the courts you would like to search.
FindLaw offers a database of case law from the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, as well as several state supreme courts. First, click on the “Advanced Search” link found under the “Search for a Case” tab on the left-hand side of the page. Use the drop-down menus to select a court, legal topic, and/or industry. You may also search by date, docket number, and party name. FindLaw also offers a tab where you may perform a full-text search. Continuing down the screen, you may also choose to browse by selecting a court, company, or legal topic. Once you arrive at a result in FindLaw, you will be brought to a screen showing a summary of the case. At the top, right-hand side of the page, you will be able to click “Read” to gain full-text access to the case.
Justia offers cases from the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, and U.S. District Courts. Additionally, you may find links to many state supreme court and intermediate court of appeal cases. To locate a case of interest, enter a keyword into the search box and use the drop-down menu to choose a jurisdiction, or simply click on a hyperlinked jurisdiction, choose a court and date, and then browse through a list of cases.
The Public Library of Law (PLOL) offers cases from the U.S. Supreme Court (1754-present), U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal (generally 1951-present, with a few exceptions), and state cases (1997-present). You can perform a keyword search of all the resources via the search box on the front page, or limit your search by selecting the “Advanced Options” link underneath the search box. The Advanced Options search allows you to limit by court and by date. In addition, the PLOL provides a “finding a case” tutorial for visitors, linked on the homepage. Users are required, however, to sign up for a free account in order to see their results.
After using these resources, if you have any questions, or would like to use a citator to update the cases you have found, feel free to visit the Law Library of Congress or your local public law library.
Updated on February 12th, 2014: This post was updated to add a video tutorial demonstrating the use of Google Scholar: