The New Surge of Open Legal Information on the Internet
Ebbinghouse, Carol, Searcher
"Carol, what do you think about this?" my editor asks, having forwarded me an article about Public.Resource.org and the release of hundreds of thousands of full-text cases, now available for the edification of all Americans at sites such as Public Library of Law [http://www.plol.org]. "Wow, Carol, isn't this good?"
"Hey, Carol, all federal cases since 1950! State appellate cases since 1997 along with codes, constitutions, regulations, court rules, and what-not. What do you think? Would you like to do an article and compare this to LexisNexis and Westlaw?"
No. Please don't make me do that. It will turn into a puff piece for the commercial databases.
All right, I rely on both the traditionals every day as a law librarian. (And so does my editor through her publisher's advertising revenue.) But while a free, online, public law library is an ambitious project, offering primary legal materials, helpful forms, and other packages, it isn't anywhere near competitive with the commercial services. That said, the release of such large files has great potential for helping laypersons navigate the legal morass.
Will it replace law librarians? Not until it provides much more hand-holding, finding tools, topical explanations, and assistance in tying together seemingly disparate provisions of codes, regulations, and cases, and interpreting them into a cognizable legal rationale and strategy in lay terms.
But it is a terrific start and headed in the right direction.
Free access to a large swath of federal and state court opinions is terrific. Finally, Americans can enjoy the fruits of the labors of the courts. But it doesn't compare with the complete retrospective and up-to-date files of the commercial databases, with their editorial enhancements, sophisticated search systems (using Boolean, natural language, and fill-in-the-blank search options), and citator services to verify that a particular case or code remains "good law."
The Public Library of Law: A Great Advance Forward, But ...
* It doesn't cover the entire volume of federal court opinions (just since 1950).
* State court opinions are only available beginning in 1997. (The PLOL site, funded by Fastcase, charges for older cases.) Or you might find an entire run of all your state's cases on your own state's website for free.
* Federal law--the largest collection at the site--is not the law with which most members of the public have to deal. State law and judicial interpretations of state laws and regulations affect more people's lives than federal.
* It doesn't contain much more than raw data, and librarians know that raw data isn't usually what the people need. In a way, when you look at this new source in comparison to the commercial tools, it seems like the equivalent of comparing a collection of individual medical anecdotes and testimonials about possible cures for this and that with a collection of documented, randomized, double-blind, supervised medical trials, the results of which have been peerreviewed and published with explanations of the process and the applications of the findings to future medical treatment. Having access to myriad "cases" doesn't guarantee finding one on point--either by facts or legal rationale--and applicable to the law of your state and binding on your courts.
The Dangerous Lay Searcher
The lack of sophisticated searching methods isn't the only thing that differentiates these collections of judicial opinions from those of LexisNexis, Westlaw, Fastcase, Loislaw, and others. It is the user. A health sciences librarian/friend of mine calls the lay patrons in her library the "happy but inept searchers." They would hit MEDLINE and other medical databases, search for "cancer" and an organ (probably without its Latin name), get lots of stuff, print a bunch, and leave happy. Did they have the most recent findings from a reputable medical journal? …