Google is taking a swing at the Lexis/Westlaw duopoly by offering free searches and free access to the full text of state, district, and appellate court opinions. Law journals, too.
Starting today, we're enabling people everywhere to find and read full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts using Google Scholar. You can find these opinions by searching for cases (like Planned Parenthood v. Casey), or by topics (like desegregation) or other queries that you are interested in. For example, go to Google Scholar, click on the "Legal opinions and journals" radio button, and try the query separate but equal. Your search results will include links to cases familiar to many of us in the U.S. such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, which explore the acceptablity of "separate but equal" facilities for citizens at two different points in the history of the U.S. But your results will also include opinions from cases that you might be less familiar with, but which have played an important role.
We think this addition to Google Scholar will empower the average citizen by helping everyone learn more about the laws that govern us all. To understand how an opinion has influenced other decisions, you can explore citing and related cases using the Cited by and Related articles links on search result pages. As you read an opinion, you can follow citations to the opinions to which it refers. You can also see how individual cases have been quoted or discussed in other opinions and in articles from law journals. Browse these by clicking on the "How Cited" link next to the case title. See, for example, the frequent citations for Roe v. Wade, for Miranda v. Arizona (the source of the famous Miranda warning) or for Terry v. Ohio (a case which helped to establish acceptable grounds for an investigative stop by a police officer).
While the full text of most landmark cases are already available through sites like FindLaw, in giving access to the full range of federal and state decisions Google is providing an important service that, frankly, the government should be already be providing. There's really no reason why the federal government and every state government shouldn't provide their respective criminal codes and all court decisions online for free. These, after all, are the laws we're supposed to follow.
UCLA law professor and blogospherian legal guru Eugene Volokh says the service is a decent start, but needs some obvious improvements, and is still a far cry from replacing Lexis or Westlaw. More feedback over at the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog.
Our own Katherine Mangu-Law recently looked at some tech geeks' efforts to make the judicial system more transparent and searchable in the Wall Street Journal.