Legal Research

Google Scholar’s legal database

Google Scholar
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I’m a little late on this . . . OK, I’m a lot late. Last month, Google announced a searchable database of case law and legal journals on Google Scholar:

Starting today, we’re enabling people everywhere to find and read full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts using Google Scholar. You can find these opinions by searching for cases (like Planned Parenthood v. Casey), or by topics (like desegregation) or other queries that you are interested in. For example, go to Google Scholar, click on the “Legal opinions and journals” radio button, and try the query separate but equal. Your search results will include links to cases familiar to many of us in the U.S. such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, which explore the acceptablity [sic] of “separate but equal” facilities for citizens at two different points in the history of the U.S. But your results will also include opinions from cases that you might be less familiar with, but which have played an important role.

I haven’t had time to test it out thoroughly, but in just a few minutes I was able to find my way around pretty well, and there appear to be quite a few search options. Looking up a case by its citation is much like the paid services: just type the citation in the search box at Google Scholar. There are options on the advanced search page to limit searches by subject matter, to search only federal cases, and to search any mix of individual states. Law journals can be searched by author, journal, date range, and any combination thereof. (Don’t worry if you don’t have the citation format for the law journal handy; identifying it by full name appears to work just fine.) Google provides a page of advanced search tips.

Cases cited in documents are linked for ready access with a click, just like the paid services. Of course, authorities not archived in Google Scholar are not linked, and the cases do not have the headnotes that appear in Westlaw or Lexis cases, and the date range of cases available so far is limited. For details, check out the “About” page for Google Scholar and follow the links in the left margin.

Unlike the free searching on Findlaw, one need not create an account to use the service. That’s nice.

Overall, this is a worthwhile resource, and perhaps especially for law bloggers who want to provide links to case law that won’t expire (like those on the California court websites do) and are is accessible to all readers. I’m going to take a serious look at using it for links on this blog.

UPDATE (12/21/09): I had time to play around with this a little more and wanted to alert readers that while the Google Scholar site does not require any form of membership, getting full access to journal articles in the results may require you to open an account at the site actually hosting the article, such as SSRN (which is free). However, I did run across an article hosted elsewhere that required payment for full access.

UPDATE (12/23/09): Legal Writing Prof Blog notes a discrepancy to watch for between Google Scholar results and the official reporters, and gives the common sense advice “If you’re going to cite to legal authorities found through Google Scholar, make sure you check your results against the official (or commercial) version, as applicable, to ensure accuracy.”

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