Free California Internet Legal Research: Cases, Dockets, and Forms

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California Attorneys and Paralegals can earn two hours of Self-Study California MCLE credit online by reading this article and completing this continuing legal education quiz.

There are several web sites where state and federal cases can be searched full-text, free of any charge such as: (1) FindLaw; (2) The Public Library of Law (PLoL); and (3) Google Scholar. Dates of coverage and the number of courts made available vary between these three sites.

There are also several sites that offer California state cases full-text for free: (1) FindLaw’s ACCESSLAW database and (2) the California Court’s official site, where Lexis provides a free database.

Free court forms are provided at the California Court’s official site. To search federal district and federal appellate court dockets for free, there are two sites: Justia and RECAP.

Each of the sites noted above differ in the courts they cover, the degree of user friendliness, date coverage, and currency. If I could combine the best features from each site, I'd have a near-perfect site, but I'll happily take what each site has to offer considering they are free.

LexisONE.com

On July 6, 2000 Lexis debuted LexisONE, which was the first web site to offer a FREE, FULL-TEXT searchable state and federal case-law database (federal district court cases were not included, however). Cases only went back five years and later were extended back to ten years. (Lexis later changed the name of LexisONE to LexisNexis Communities.) However, as of April 2012, Lexis took the free site down.

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

One month after the LexisONE debut, FindLaw.com (now owned by Westlaw) debuted a free California case-law database, powered by ACCESSLAW. (http://www.findlaw.com/cacases/index.html#dirsearch2). Though FindLaw trailed by a month, their debut did manage to trump Lexis--by extending its coverage of California case law back to 1934. 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.”

You can search by:

  • (1) Citation by clicking on the Citation tab or
  • (2) by Advanced Search by clicking on its tab.

Cases can be searched by the following criteria:

  • (1) Keywords and Phrases (full text)
  • (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.

Other FindLaw 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), 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 uses the Boolean connectors “and”, “or” and “not” and offers only one proximity connector, “near” (which means “one word within 50 words of another word”). To search for an exact phrase, enclose it in quotation marks. The single asterisk ( * ) wildcard is used to expand the root of a word. For example, fly* would bring back results with the word fly or flying. The double asterisk ( ** ) wildcard is used to include variations of a word. For example, fly** would bring back results with the word fly or flying, but also flown or flew.

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.)

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

Google Scholar

Late in the evening of November 17, 2009 a Google employee tweeted that something was new at Google Scholar and challenged readers to figure out what it was ... One of the authors of this article, a well-known late-night type, visited Google Scholar that evening and learned that Google had launched a free case law database Legal Opinions and Journals. You can reach Google Scholar from the Google.com home page by selecting the More tab, and then selecting Scholar (if the link is not displayed on the More tab, check the Even More tab) or you can use this direct URL: http://scholar.google.com/. Click “Revert to old venerable look” in the left lower corner.

Google Scholar contains opinions from: all U.S. state appellate and state supreme courts back to 1950, the U.S. federal district, appellate, tax, and bankruptcy courts back to 1923, and the U.S. Supreme Court back to 1791. Also included in this database are legal (and non-legal) journal articles. Google Scholar has no documentation about its currency. 

Google Scholar can be searched the same way you search at Google.com but it's better to use the Advanced Search (click “Advanced Scholar Search” located to the right of the search box) to construct a sophisticated search using the various search boxes that allow you to search with phrases, exclude words/phrases or search by author, publication name, date, etc. (The author and publication name are useful for searching the journals database.) There are no separate search boxes to search by citation, party name, counsel, or judge, so use the "all of the words" search box or the "exact phrase" search box.

In June 2012, Google Scholar's home page displayed a link, "Try our new modern look." We advise you not to try it. It appears that Google is testing a redesign to Scholar. While Google labels it “our new modern look,” we label it a major hindrance to those using Google Scholar to conduct case law research. It’s a hindrance for two reasons:

  • (1) the Advanced Search is hidden behind the drop-down arrow to the right of the search box and
  • (2) the Advanced Search no longer allows you to “Select specific courts” as you used to be able to.

Instead, Google forces you into a time consuming two-step process where you first run a search and then after viewing your results, which include every state and federal court, you are allowed to narrow down to the court(s) you wanted to search in the first place. If at some point in time Google doesn't allow you to avoid its "new modern look," read how to use it at http://www.netforlawyers.com/content/google-scholar-updates-search-interface-hides-reduces-advanced-search-functionality.

In Google Scholar, to search all California courts, scroll down to the bottom of the Advanced Search page and select "California" from the drop-down menu labeled "Search opinions of X court." To search other jurisdictions or combinations of jurisdictions, click the "Select specific courts to search" link.

To search Google Scholar, you use the same Boolean connectors that you use when you conduct a Google.com search. A space between words indicates "and," the minus sign indicates you are excluding a word, and "OR," which must be in upper case, indicates you want one or the other or both words. Google's proximity connector "AROUND(n)" is similar to Lexis' "w/" connector. AROUND must be in upper case and you replace the "n" with the number of words you want one word to be within another word.  Thus, a search can be constructed to find cases with the keywords “negligence” within 4 words of “automobile” by typing: negligence AROUND(4) automobile.  

You can, in the alternative, use the Advanced Search menu at http://scholar.google.com/advanced_scholar_search (discussed earlier) and enter your keywords into the various search boxes (but don’t use the Boolean or Proximity connectors discussed above).

Keywords are highlighted (in light yellow), but highlighting can be removed. Cases seem to be displayed in random date order in Google Scholar results.

Google Scholar offers a “Create email alert feature,” which allows researchers to receive alerts about cases on any chosen topic emanating from any chosen court (or alerts for articles or patents on any chosen topic). If your search included articles, legal journals, or patents, those would also be included in your alert results. You can choose to have your e-mail alert include a list of citations only or a summary. The alert defaults to your current search and current court choices, but you can revise the alert by typing in other keywords/phrases and even selecting one of the following: Legal opinions and journals, Articles and patents, Articles excluding patents, All federal courts, or Advanced Search. Choosing Advanced Search takes the researcher back to the search page to revise the search to include specific courts to include in the alert.

California Court’s Official Site: Lexis Case Law Database

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

Lexis uses the Boolean connectors “and”, “or” and “not” and, in addition to Boolean connectors, helps attorneys narrow down a search by offering proximity connectors (e.g. “one word within x words of another). Thus, a search can be constructed to find cases with the keywords “negligence” within 4 words of “automobile” by typing: negligence w/4 automobile.  Lexis also offers (in the left-hand column) the following field searches: By Terms (natural language words or phrases), By Citation, By Party Name, By Judge, and also an Advanced Search using keywords and connectors.

Lexis updates its California database once a month at the court's web site.

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 depublication 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 citator service for the U. S. Courts of Appeals or states other than California.

The "How cited tab" displayed to the right of the "View this case" tab in a Google Scholar case will help you conduct a citation check to ascertain whether your case is still good law.

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.

 

Registration and Log-On

Google Scholar and the Lexis California databases do not require registration, but FindLaw requires registration (free). .

Number of Cases Displayed

FindLaw results are limited to the first 100 cases while Lexis' California case results are limited to the first 25 cases. Google Scholar does not seem to have a limit.

California State Court Dockets

Case information (dockets) for California Supreme and Appellate Courts can be searched at 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 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.”

California Court Forms

Court forms can be viewed by number, name, or topic (http://www.courts.ca.gov/forms.htm). Also, you can view a list of recently changed forms only. If a form is interactive, it will be labeled “fillable.”

New Free Federal Docket Web Site-Justia

 

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.

 

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