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legal.online, Column 41, July 1998
Copyright 1998 Robert J. Ambrogi
Finding Federal Court Opinions Online
By Robert J. Ambrogi
Three years ago, this column surveyed the nascent phenomenon of courts making their opinions available over the Internet. That survey found all of nine courts with opinions online: the Supreme Court, three U.S. circuits, and five state appellate courts.
Today, there is hardly an appellate court in the nation, federal or state, whose opinions are not online, and a rapidly growing number of trial and specialty courts are following suit.
This month's column reviews federal courts on the 'Net. It includes courts whose opinions are online as well as those that have Web sites without opinions. Notable is the growing number of U.S. district and bankruptcy courts now on the list.
The Supreme Court has been disseminating its opinions electronically since 1990. On the Web, the best place to find the court's current opinions is Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute, http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct. It includes all decisions since 1990, posted within hours of release. Decisions can be searched by key words or browsed by party name, date or docket number.
The most comprehensive, free Supreme Court database is provided by FindLaw, which has all decisions since 1893, http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/supreme.html. Cases can be browsed by year and U.S. Reports volume number or searched by citation, case title and full text.
For older Supreme Court cases, the FedWorld/FLITE database, http://www.fedworld.gov/supcourt/index.htm, archives more than 7,000 opinions issued between 1937 and 1975.
Opinions since 1995 and those from the FLITE database are also available through Villanova University School of Law at: http://www.law.vill.edu/Fed-Ct/sct.html.
A commercial site, USSCPlus, offers the full text of decisions since 1953, as well as selected leading cases since 1793, http://www.usscplus.com.
For keeping abreast of current cases, Cornell provides a free service that delivers syllabi of court decisions by e-mail the day they are issued. These are official syllabi prepared by the reporter of decisions. The full text of any decision can also be requested by e-mail. To subscribe to this service, send e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Your message should read: "subscribe liibulletin your name" (substituting your name).
If you do not mind paying for precedent, a number of subscription services on the Web offer comprehensive collections of federal and state case law. Notably, both Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis now provide Web gateways to their complete databases. Unlike the dial-in versions, no special software is required -- any standard Web browser will do. But like their older counterparts, users must have a subscription and password, at prices that track those of the dial-in services.
You can find Westlaw at: http://www.westlaw.com. Lexis-Nexis is at: http://www.lexis.com.
Another subscription service is "V.", http://www.versuslaw.com. It includes opinions from the Supreme Court, all federal circuits, and the appellate courts of all states and the District of Columbia. Its archive dates back to 1930 for many states, to 1930 for most federal circuits, and to 1900 for the Supreme Court. Access costs $595 a year. You can try it free for two weeks.
LOIS, http://www.pita.com, has Supreme Court opinions from 1899, all federal circuit court opinions since 1971, and appellate opinions from 24 states. The price ranges from $300 to $2,595 a year, depending on the libraries you choose. New customers can try the service for $8 a day.
If you are looking for a specific case and know the citation, party names or docket number, you can retrieve it using WestDoc, http://westdoc.com. This service, from West Group, allows you to retrieve any case from the WestLaw library, at $8 per case.
U.S. Circuit Courts
The Internet offers a variety of options for finding federal circuit court opinions. For "one-stop shopping," try Law Journal EXTRA!, http://www.ljx.com/courthouse/index.html, or Findlaw, http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/courts/index.html, both of which offer libraries of opinions from all federal circuits.
Each circuit also has at least one dedicated site. Most are maintained by law schools in cooperation with the courts, some by the courts themselves.
U.S. District Courts
While the federal circuits appeared in Cyberspace fairly early, U.S. district courts were long nowhere to be seen. That is changing, with a number of them now online. Some include opinions, others do not, but even those that do not generally provide useful information such as local rules and forms.
Courts whose sites include opinions are:
Courts that publish only selected opinions on their sites are:
Finally, district courts on the Web, but without opinions, are:
U.S. Bankruptcy Courts
Bankruptcy courts, too, are setting up Web sites. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the 8th Circuit has a site at: http://ls.wustl.edu/8th.cir. At the trial level, the majority of the bankruptcy courts online do not provide opinions, but a growing number do.
Bankruptcy courts that publish their opinions online are:
Bankruptcy courts with Web sites but without opinions are:
The American Bankruptcy Institute maintains an extensive library of bankruptcy court decisions at its Web site, http://www.abiworld.org/chambers. Opinions are searchable and also indexed by court, date and judge. The scope of the archive is limited to cases judges submit to ABI.
Note that case information and dockets for district and bankruptcy courts are available via modem (but not the Internet) through the federal judiciary's PACER system (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). Most PACER systems charge an access fee of 60 cents a minute. A complete list of PACER telephone numbers can be found at: http://www.uscourts.gov.
A handful of specialized courts also have Web sites. They are:
Robert J. Ambrogi (email@example.com), a lawyer in Rockport, Mass., is editor of the Internet newsletter legal.online, http://www.legalonline.com. Past installments of this column are archived at: http://www.legaline.com.