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Google Scholar's All Federal and All States Online Case Law (and Articles) Database 

To search California and other state and federal cases for free, you can use Google Scholar. Google Scholar can be reached from the Google.com home page by clicking the Apps icon, selecting the More tab from the pop-up, then selecting Even More and finally  selecting Scholar.  Better yet, you can go directly to Scholar with this URL: http://scholar.google.com (we recommend you bookmark it if you use if often). 

The cases come from a variety of sources, such as Cornell LII, Justia, Public.Resource.org, and official court sites. Scholar contains opinions from the following courts:

  • All U.S state appellate and state supreme courts back to 1950
  • U.S. federal district, appellate, tax, and bankruptcy courts back to 1923
  • Court of Claims from 1929 to 1982 (when the court was abolished)
  • Court of Customs and Patent Appeals from 1929 to 1982 (when the court was abolished)
  • Customs Court from 1949 to 1980 (when it was replaced by the Court of International Trade)
  • Court of International Trade from 1980 (when it replaced the Customs Court) to the present
  • Board of Tax Appeals from 1924 (when it was established) to 1942 (when it became the Tax Court)
  • Tax Court from 1943  (when it replaced the Board of Tax Appeals) to the present
  • U.S. Supreme Court back to 1791

Google states that it does not guarantee its coverage to be complete or accurate.  The Customs Court and Tax Court, for example do not appear to be complete for all years, especially for older years.  It would be a good idea to double-check your research, especially for older cases, in another database if possible.  If a particular case is not available online for free in full-text format, Google Scholar search results will only include a citation. 

There are three ways to search case law using Google Scholar.  To use any of the three methods, first select the Case law (radio button under the search box. Three pre-filtering options will then appear—a Federal Courts radio button, a radio button for the state you are in (or the jurisdiction you have saved in a previous search), and a Select courts link.

After you have selected Case law, you can search in one of three ways:

  1. enter your search terms directly into the search box, which will search all jurisdictions;
  2. enter your search terms into the Advanced search feature, which we will explain below; or
  3. pre-filter your search by selecting certain courts to search, such as Federal courts or Illinois courts, or by using the Select courts link, as in the illustration above. If you use the first or second methods (and enter your search terms now), you may still want to filter the results by court or other criteria afterward.  We will discuss how to do this below.  

If you click Select courts, a screen containing all the courts Google Scholar covers will appear.  You can then use the checkboxes to choose any combination of courts to search.  

For example, for a customized all federal court opinions search, you would click the Select all link just to the right of the Federal courts heading to select all federal courts. This will include the U.S. Supreme Court, all federal appellate courts, the 1st Circuit Appeals and District (through the 11th and D.C.), the Federal Circuit, the Tax Courts and Board of Tax Appeals, Bankruptcy Courts, etc. Or, you could search one federal court or multiple (instead of all) federal courts. You could also mix and match federal and state courts.

For a customized all-state court opinions search, you would click the Select all link beside the State courts heading. To search only the state courts of Nebraska, on the other hand, click the Clear all link beside the State courts heading (as well as the one beside Federal courts, if you had selected any) and then check the box next to Nebraska.  If you only want the Nebraska Supreme Court but not the Nebraska Court of Appeals, simply click the Court of Appeals checkbox to uncheck it.  (This will also uncheck the main Nebraska box, as well.)  When you are finished making your court selections, click Done to close the courts screen.

When you click the Select courts link to use the check boxes to select jurisdictions before entering a search , clicking Done takes you to a screen with a single Google Scholar search box and the instructions “Please enter a query in the search box above.”  If you wish to use the Advanced search feature at this point (which we recommend), you may click the small arrow to the right of the My Citations button.  A drop-down menu will appear, and you can select Advanced search.  (My Citations is a recently added feature that helps authors track citations to their own publications.)

You can also access the Advanced search from Google Scholar’s home page (in one of two ways, depending on your browser).  Most users can access the Advanced search option by clicking a small downward-facing arrow in the right side of the search box.  This arrow does not always appear, however, and some users may need to access the feature by clicking an Advanced search link at the top of the Google Scholar home page.  Regardless of how you access the Advanced search, the menu will look the same. Before selecting the Advanced search, be sure you have changed the Articles default to Case law if you want to search case law.

Google frequently updates its features, and one of these recent updates includes the removal of the separate Advanced search page with four sections, which was known as the “old venerable” look.  Researchers must now use the “modern” version which essentially consists of a pop-up box containing two of the four sections that had been available with the venerable look.  Despite its simplified format, however, you can still create better and more targeted searches with the Advanced search than without it.

Searching Google Scholar is similar to searching Google.com as far as Boolean, keyword, and phrase searching are concerned, but proximity searching does not seem to work all the time. Although there are some Google Scholar-specific search tips (http://scholar.google.com/intl/en/scholar/help.html#searching), which explain how to use the Advanced Search menu, they focus primarily on how to search for articles. To compensate for Google’s lack of documentation about how to search the case law portion of Google Scholar and its Advanced search, we have run a number of test searches to offer searchers some guidance.

The Google Scholar Advanced search menu is labeled Find Articles, but it should be labeled “Find Articles and Opinions” because this is where researchers enter words and phrases to also search Google Scholar’s opinions database. The first four search boxes in this section are similar to the Google.com Advanced Search page but there are some differences, such as he the drop-down menu labeled where my words occur. You can use this drop-down menu to select either in the title of the article (this should really be labeled “in the party names of the case”, such as roe wade to search for Roe v. Wade) or anywhere in the article (this should really be labeled “anywhere in the case”).

The Find articles section provides keyword/Boolean connector field boxes for you to enter your search terms into and a phrase field box.

  • With all of the words (This is the “and” Boolean connector field so all words entered here will appear in your search results.) 
  • With the exact phrase (All of your search results must include this exact phrase. If you enter only one phrase into this field, there is no need to surround the phrase with quotation marks. However, if you enter more than one phrase, each will require quotation marks. 
  • With at least one of the words (This is the “OR” Boolean connector field so at least one of the words entered will be  included in the search results
  • Without the words (This is the “not” Boolean connector field so all words or phrases entered into this field will be excluded in the search results.) 

In addition these fields allow you to create searches that are unique to opinions. For example, to force a search by citation, enter the citation (in Bluebook style) into the exact phrase search box. Even though a case citation is not an “article,” the results will include cases.

To force a case search by party name, first limit the results to a specific court (e.g., the U.S. Supreme Court) if you know which court decided the case. Next, enter the party names (e.g., Roe v. Wade) into the exact phrase search box, making sure to use “v.” and not “versus” or “vs.” Finally, from the where my words occur drop-down menu, select in the title of the article. This search brought back one opinion. It did not bring back any articles because choosing a court eliminates articles in the search results.

The remainder of the Advanced search box provides search fields for Author, Publication, and Date. The label “Judge” could be substituted for the “Author” label because this is where a judge’s name can be entered when researching opinions.  Test searches indicate that this field does not necessarily return opinions (or concurrences or dissents) authored by the judge searched, however. Any case in which the judge’s name appears (i.e., if he or she heard the case, but did not author the opinion) can appear in the search results.

Once you have selected which courts to search and entered your search terms, you will receive the list of results, much like any other list of search results.  However, Google Scholar now provides search result filtering options for legal document searches, and you can use these to refine your research even more.  You will find the filtering options in a sidebar on the left side of the search results page.

After you have executed a search and refined your results, you will begin reviewing the cases by clicking any search result link to view a full-text opinion with Google Scholar.

Keywords are automatically highlighted in pale yellow, but you can remove the highlighting by clicking the small “x” in the upper right corner of the screen. Page numbers in the left-hand margin and throughout the text of the opinion correspond to the pages in the printed reporter (usually the official reporter), as shown in the Federal Reporter in the illustration above. The upper left corner of the screen contains three links—Read, How cited, and Search.  The Read link is inactive on this screen because you are already reading the case. Clicking How cited will show other cases that cited this case and can help you conduct a rudimentary citation check of your case.

Google Scholar allows you to create alerts to receive regular e-mail alerts about cases on any chosen topic emanating from any chosen court.  If your search included articles, legal journals, or patents, those would be included in your alert results. You can also set up alerts using a citation or keywords, such as a party, judge, or attorney name. The alert defaults to your current search, but you can revise the alert by typing in other keywords/phrases and selecting up to 10 or up to 20 results at a time. You do not have to have a Google account to set up an alert, although if you don’t, Google may require you to click a verification link in order to begin receiving alerts.

FindLaw’s “Powered By ACCESSLAW” California Case Law Database

FindLaw.com offers a free California case-law database, powered by ACCESSLAW, which provides coverage of California case law back to 1934 (http://www.findlaw.com/cacases/index.html#dirsearch2). California Appellate and the California Supreme cases can only be searched together. To use the FindLaw.com California case law database (http://www.findlaw.com/cacases/index.html#dirsearch2), scroll down the page to “Powered By ACCESSLAW.”

After you run your search, there will be a results list displaying the summary of the case. Click the case name and then click the Read link to view the full text of the case. Note that you must be logged into your free FindLaw account to view the full text. (To register for a free account, see http://linkon.in/csv4n0.)

You can search by:

  • Citation by clicking on the Citation tab or
  • by Advanced Search by clicking on its tab.

The Advanced Search menu allows you to search by the following criteria:

  1. Keywords and Phrases (full text)
    1. The Boolean operators AND, OR, and the proximity operator NEAR (which places words on the same page, “close together,” according to the help page) can still be used to connect keywords and phrases. Note that the above operators must be in all capital letters; otherwise the search engine will treat them as regular search terms. Even when the connectors appear to be functioning correctly, FindLaw often highlights them in results, as if they were regular search terms. 
    1. To search for an exact phrase, enclose it in quotation marks. (Although this technique will locate cases containing the phrase, the individual terms will also be highlighted in the cases.)
  2. Docket Number
  3. Party Name
  4. Judge Name
  5. Attorney Name
  6. Cite Check (for an explanation of Cite Check, see the later section with the heading “Is it “Good Law”?).

Cases can also be browsed by date or volume if you scroll down the Advanced Search page. Some other helpful navigational features on FindLaw are the hyper-links that link to any of the California cases that are cited in the case being viewed. This assists a researcher to expand his or her research to related cases. FindLaw’s ACCESSLAW database uses the Boolean connectors “and”, “or” and “not.” If you leave a space between words, it will not understand your request—you must use one of the Boolean connectors. To search for an exact phrase, enclose it in quotation marks.

Once you click on a case result, notice the links labeled Do Another California Case Law Search and Cases Citing This Case. CAVEAT: The Do Another California Case Law Search link does not always appear to work, however, and we have informed FindLaw, so hopefully there will be a fix by the time you read this. 

FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court, Circuit Courts of Appeals, and         Other State Online Case Law Databases

FindLaw also offers U.S. Supreme Court cases back to 1893 (http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/supreme.html, U.S. Courts of Appeals cases back to 1995 or 1996 (but the First Circuit goes back to 1984), and all fifty state courts’ cases dating back to 1997 (for most states). NOTE: FindLaw has two separate databases for California cases: one that is part of the fifty-state court case law database (which only goes back to 1997) and the ACCESSLAW one discussed in the prior paragraph. You will want to use ACCESSLAW, not only because it goes back further in time (1934), but because it offers more search capabilities.

To find FindLaw’s U.S. Supreme Court and Circuit Courts of Appeals case law databases and all fifty states’ case law databases select the “Cases & Codes” tab on the upper-left side of FindLaw’s home page at http://lp.findlaw.com and then:

Scroll down to “Browse Cases and Codes”

For the U.S. Supreme Court or any of the Circuit Courts of Appeals, scroll down to “US Courts of Appeals - Opinions & Resources” and select one of the courts.

For one of the state’s courts, scroll down to “State Resources” and select a state. Then, scroll down to “State Court Opinions” and choose the database labeled “From FindLaw.”

FindLaw’s U.S. Supreme Court cases (http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/supreme.html) are searchable by Citation, Full-text, or Party name. For an explanation of how to cite check U.S. Supreme Court cases, see the later section with the heading “Is it “Good Law”?

FindLaw’s Circuit court cases and state cases are searchable by Free Text Search—also known as a full-text search (keywords and phrases-see the explanation of how to search in the section about ACCESSLAW), Party Name Search (although the  Party Name Search states it includes Counsel and Judge Names, only a party name search worked for us), and Docket Number (instead of the Citation search found at the U.S. Supreme Court database). A Date Range can also be added to the preceding searches (the U.S. Supreme Court database does not offer this option). The Circuit and state courts case law search menu also contains a Browse by Court tab, which displays opinions in reverse date order by year/month.

FindLaw adds cases to its database on a daily basis and FindLaw highlights your search terms.

Lexis' Free California Case Law Database Provided at the Court’s Official Site 

A free California case law database is provided by Lexis at the court's California Official Reports Public Access Web site  http://www.lexisnexis.com/clients/CACourts), with coverage back to 1850.

The home page defaults to a Search By Terms page where the researcher uses natural language words or phrases to search for published or unpublished cases (see next illustration).  California Appellate and Supreme Courts can be searched together or separately and a date restriction can be added to the search.  The Search by Terms page is very basic and does not accept Boolean connectors or truncation symbols. Researchers type their research issue into the search box using terms (keywords), phrases, lists, or a “natural language”  sentence (e.g., Where can I find cases about “negligence per se” and also products or goods?).

Although there is a warning that a search will only retrieve the 25 most relevant cases, test searches retrieved varying numbers of results higher than 25 and up to 100. Results are displayed in the Cite View, which shows the citation and our search terms highlighted within partial sentences.  This view can be switched to Full, KWIC (KWIC stands for “keywords in context” so each case result will be displayed with 25 words on either side of our keywords), or Custom.  (For example, case results could be displayed with a citation only or with a citation and the counsel names only.  There are over twenty custom display options.) Results can be Sorted By either Relevance or Date. The Focus search allows a researcher to enter one or more keywords or phrases to re-run the search within the current search results (to narrow down the search further).

When a case is being viewed, colored “treatment” flags indicate how other cases have treated your case (e.g., positive, negative, etc., treatment). The green plus sign indicates there is positive treatment of this case.  If researchers click the plus sign, however, they are shown this message: “ERROR: Shepard’s is not available to you under your current subscription agreement.”  Nevertheless, the treatment flags are a valuable editorial enhancement to this database, as they let a researcher know whether a case is likely to be good law. 

On the left-hand column of the search page for both Terms (natural language) or Terms and Connectors, there are additional search options: By Citation (official only), By Party Name (plaintiff or defendant or both), By Judge, and Advanced.  The Advanced search link will take you to a Search By Terms & Connectors page that looks almost identical to the Search by Terms (natural language) screen.  The only difference is that the search box, now labeled Search for Opinions by Terms & Connectors, will accept Boolean operators with your search terms. 

Although Lexis has provided some helpful tips for Terms and Connectors searching, you must first run a search to view them (by clicking Advanced), so we will provide a brief overview here.  The Terms and Connectors searching on this site functions similarly to the pay Lexis databases.  The basic connectors and, or and and not are available, as are several proximity connectors, such as w/n (within n words of the next word or phrase) w/s (within the same sentence as), w/p (within the same paragraph as), and w/seg (within the same segment as).  And not can also be combined with the proximity connectors for even more advanced searching.  In addition, several search commands, such as atleast, allcaps, caps, nocaps, plural and singular are available to researchers.  And finally, the wildcard symbols ( ! ) and ( * ) can be used in Terms and Connectors searching (but not in a natural language search).  The Boolean and proximity connectors and the search commands are case insensitive.  Note: Although you are not required to enclose phrases in quotation marks in the Terms and Connectors searches (but you are in Terms--natural language searches), our test searches show that it is a good idea to always put them in quotation marks, both in natural language and Terms and Connectors searching. 

Lexis displays the list of case results in reverse chronological order and includes both the case name and the date of the case. Most researchers prefer to look at recent cases first rather than older cases first, thus the reverse chronological order display makes navigating through the list easy.

Is it “Good Law”?

Note that the cases found at these free sites (and even at a court's own official site) are “slip opinions" and may not yet be final. They are subject to clerical corrections, modifications and rehearing. California Court of Appeal slip opinions are subject to a grant of review or to a de-publication order by the California Supreme Court. And, of course, opinions can be overruled or reversed. Thus, before relying on a case, attorneys need to verify that the case is still “good law.” To verify a California ACCESSLAW case at FindLaw, use the Advanced Search menu (http://www.findlaw.com/cacases/index.html#dirsearch2) and enter a citation into the search box labeled “Cite check: Find Cases which cite another case." In the alternative, while reading a California ACCESSLAW case at FindLaw, you can click the link labeled "Cases citing this case." While reading a U.S. Supreme Court case at FindLaw, you can click the link labeled "Cases citing this case: Supreme Court" or "Cases citing this case: Circuit Courts" to learn how your case has been treated by other cases. There is no free FindLaw citator service for the U. S. Courts of Appeals or states other than California.

Google Scholar, however, has a citator feature for all courts. It is the "How cited tab" (displayed to the right of the "View this case" tab) when viewing a Google Scholar case.

 

None of these free citator services provide editorial treatment. Instead, you will need to read the case to learn how your case has been treated by other cases and whether it's still good law. And, none of the free citators will tell you if an included unpublished case was later affirmed or reversed by a published case. 

Official California State Court Dockets

Case information (dockets) for California Supreme and Appellate Courts can be searched at the official state court site (http://appellatecases.courtinfo.ca.gov). To locate information about specific cases, select the Supreme Court or an individual district (or county if you don’t know its district number) and then beneath "Select a function" click the "Search" button. You can search by docket number, attorney name, law firm, case name, or case caption. From the case summary screen, you can link to docket entries, future scheduled actions, briefs, trial court information (including the name of the trial court judge), request automatic e-mail notification of case actions, etc. You may select which case actions to be notified of including “record on appeal filed, brief filed, calendar notice, disposition, and remittitur issued.”

Justia's Free Federal Docket Web Site 

Justia’s U.S. District Court’s civil case filings and dockets database (http://dockets.justia.com) provides free searching of the federal district court’s civil filings and dockets and and the U.S. Courts of Appeals’ dockets from 2004 to present. This database is updated multiple times per day. This Justia database can’t be searched by keywords and phrases. Instead, it is searched by one or more of the following “field” options: party name, court, date, or lawsuit type. “Lawsuit type” refers to the Nature of the Suit (“NOS”), which is assigned by the court. For example, in the Lawsuit Type search box, you could search by the NOS Airplane Product Liability to search all cases relating to that one topic. You would leave the party name search box empty, but you could narrow down the search with dates or specific federal district courts (e.g. all California Federal District Courts or only the California Federal Central District Court). The database can also be browsed by state, NOS, or case name.

While the opinions and orders noted on the docket sheet are available from Justia, only select underlying pleadings (complaints, answers, etc.) are. Researchers are directed to the government’s pay database, PACER. At PACER, one can also search the dockets of the Bankruptcy Court—something that Justia does not offer.

California Court Forms

Court forms can be browsed by Category, Number, or Name  or searched by Keyword or by Number (http://www.courts.ca.gov/forms.htm). Also, you can view a list of recently changed forms by clicking Latest Changes from the left-hand side column. Most forms are interactive and can be saved and printed.

This article was adapted from the book, “Internet Legal Research on a Budget” by Carole Levitt and Judy Davis (ABA LPD 2014). Reprinted with permission of the American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

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