Case Law Data Base Finds Home on Internet

Article excerpt

If you picture the classic tomes lining legal chambers, it seems that law and publishing go hand in hand. So the match looks perfect for putting law on the Internet, where the subject's vastness suits the limitless medium, and electronic searching is a godsend.

But there is a rub. Anyone involved in a legal dispute wants airtight assurance that his or her information is strictly reliable and current and includes esoteric, but crucial, details (even how a judge capitalizes and italicizes words). And the World Wide Web is not comprehensive enough to bank on, or go to court with. Yet.

But before long, experts predict, a huge data base of federal and state case law will exist, searchable across jurisdictions. Already, allowing for the patchwork quality of the Web, a wealth of information exists that is of great help to generalists and professionals alike. The generalist can do such things as find sample contracts and prepare time- and money-saving steps before meeting with lawyers, who themselves can check out a wide swath of case law, ask questions on mailing lists and read law journals. Michael Jimenez, reference librarian at the Harvard Law School, said that while the federal government had done a superb job putting up laws and regulations on-line, the court system lagged far behind. This has caused some strange wrinkles. For one, a variety of law schools are posting the decisions of appeals courts in their local area; Villanova University School of Law, for its part, puts up the rulings of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, starting from 1994. But there is no uniform methodology at such sites, and decisions can be posted days to weeks after a ruling. The White House site directs people looking for Supreme Court rulings not to the Supreme Court, as you would expect, but to Cornell Law School. It also sends them to Cornell to search the U.S. Code of all federal laws. But the code on file there dates roughly from 1994, and searching for appeals is somewhat awkward. There is also a dearth of case law, though some sites are filling that in. The Findlaw site, for instance, now offers Supreme Court decisions from 1906 on. With irregularities like these, the big commercial services that lawyers wean on from law school, like Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw, and which have only limited availability on the Web, are considered the essential final arbiters, and are much easier for law professionals to use, though they are expensive. That still leaves a place on the Web for people "who are not well served, or not served at prices they could afford, at existing services -- practitioners in rural areas, lawyers in state and local government, and police officers and sheriffs," said Peter Martin, director of the Cornell site and former dean of the law school. …