Wednesday, November 18, 2009
What does this mean? Apparently the cases in Google SLOJ were, at some point, in the Westlaw database. To see what I mean, search for State v Dragoo, 765 N.W.2d 666 (2009), in Westlaw. Now, find the case on Google SLOJ. As you scroll down through the opinion, you'll notice that on page 670, at the beginning of the first paragraph under the heading "Standard of Review," is a number one, in brackets: . The second paragraph of the section has the numbers two and three in brackets: . This corresponds to the headnote numbers in the West version of the case.
Oddly, the Google SLOJ version of the case has excluded the court's own Syllabus, which isn't an official part of the opinion, but is written by the court and is contained in the official publication of Nebraska Supreme Court cases, and is included in the Westlaw version as well. This also explains why the Google SLOJ version is missing page 667.
Listen carefully, you might soon be able to make out the sound of a shoe dropping in Mountain View....
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Official Google Blog: Finding the laws that govern us
Here are a few initial comments about it. First, it is still classically a Google product. By this I mean that they spend little time working on user interface. It is what it is. We tend to forgive Google for all it's faults because it simply has little competition and it's so quick, easy to use that the annoyances of the way the search results and options are presented to you are forgiven. It's quick and easy. Forget the clutter.
Second, it's amazingly snappy. Searches on any topic I threw at it, in any combination of databases were returned in the blink of an eye.
Third, the "How Cited," tab is fascinating and provides quick access to raw citation information on the case. Like everything Google, there's little help distinguishing one cite from another, but there is help. And the information provided is good. The speed of the Google engine can make drilling down to particulars very quick - even if it means that you have to wade through hundreds of cases. Clicking from case to "How Cited" tab, to case, one can quickly get lost, but if you keep your wits about you, you can learn some interesting things about the case you're researching.
Fourth, it is unclear just exactly what you're searching when you use Google Scholar's Legal Opinions and Journals, (GSLOJ). When you click on the Advanced Search link, you get choices of, "Search all legal opinions and journals," or searching only Federal opinions or individual state court opinions. State court opinions can be searched in any combination, just by clicking boxes and selecting the states that you want to search. Trouble is, there is no description of what library of journals is being searched, or what are the years of coverage for case databases. Do the Nebraska cases, for example, go back ten years, twenty, or two. It's hard to say.
Fifth, there are no statutes or regulations to be found in/on LOJ. What's with that?!
Sixth, you can't search only Law Journals. With the growing movement to develop digital commons, and to move law reviews to the web, it would be immensely helpful to be able to mine this vein of secondary material.
Overall, Google Scholar's new LOJ is a welcome entry into the free online legal research community. I don't think that West or Lexis have much to worry about, but LII, Justicia, et al, may have "competition."
What impact this will have on Law.Gov, "Free Law," and kerfuffles? This is certainly a game changer.
For the Official Explanation: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/11/finding-laws
Monday, November 16, 2009
Why online haven't legal database providers figured out that online databases are a new breed of legal research tool and developed something completely different? To date, all online databases are not much more than online versions of their old-fashioned print tools. There are differences, of course: Online searching allows users to find particular cases and documents quickly, sort rapidly and print more cleanly, but in reality, online tools do no more than allow users to skate around through masses of undifferentiated primary law, using cite-verification tools to sift through the mass of material fairly quickly. But without much help or guidance.
I propose development of a new kind of online search engine. First, let's establish a few assumptions. First, let's presume that cases cited by treatises, law review, blog writers and commentators are cases that are most important than cases that are not cited by these writers. Second, let's presume that cases cited more frequently are more important than less cited cases. Third, it is possible to make assumptions about the relative value of a case based upon the kinds of works a case is cited in, as well as the kind of treatment that a case receives in that work.
Based upon these three assumptions, I think that it is possible to develop a database(s) that is comprised of only cited cases. What's more, meta-data can be created that will note where it was cited, and the level of treatment.
There are at least six great sources from which you can build such databases. West has, perhaps the greatest library from which to build such a database. It's collection of secondary materials is tremendous. Lexis is also well-positioned to accomplish something like this with its Matthew Bender titles. But, perhaps the two companies best equipped to build such a high performance database are CCH and BNA. These companies own some of the very best specialized law treatises. It's nice for these companies to put their newsletters and looseleafs in electronic format, but, to paraphrase early library automation consultants, "an electronic version of a good looseleaf only creates a good electronic looseleaf." In other words, it doesn't make a good thing better; it only makes it electronic. In order to make a good thing great, it must be different. (That should be obvious, but somehow it's not….)
But what if you're not West, Lexis, BNA or CCH? Are you out of luck? I don't think so. There are two resources left. First, Hein Online is now comprised of an unprecedented collection of law reviews. This is a vast gold mine of notable cases. Hein itself could develop a search engine that sifts through the very best cases based on citation frequency among law review writers.
A newly emerging resource that may accomplish roughly the same thing, are digital commons and blogs. Looking forward, a crawler could be designed that will crawl through digital commons, legal blogs and law review websites looking for cited cases. Here, the presumption is that cases that are discussed by more writers are more significant.
Finally, it is possible that such as database could be made simply from cases cited by other cases. It can be presumed that cases that are cited by other cases most frequently are those cases that are more significant legal precedents.
Sunday, November 08, 2009
On Friday afternoon, 6 November 2009, we interviewed Carl Malamud, founder of Public.Resource.org. A transcript of the chat room can be found here. You can download the interview from The Law Librarian's BlogTalkRadio web page or find it on iTunes.
Law.Gov was the focus of the interview, and it seems that much of the hoopla (and kerfuffle) about Law.Gov and the "free law" movement is all misguided worry on the part of commercial publishers. The worry on the part of researchers is justified, but, after listening to Malamud's explanation of the Law.Gov movement, not cause for pessimism.
Lexis and Westlaw are the two largest commercial sources of very high priced primary legal material (VHPPLM), as opposed to "free (primary) law," (FPL). The worry on the part of VHPPLM providers is that the free law, or the Open Access movement, will result in loss of market share and lost revenue. The logic of this is really extraordinary. VHPPLM providers get the primary material for free, refine and repackage it with very good (no, excellent) indexing and finding, and then sell it to professionals at a premium.
This is perfectly fair (if over-priced), because the market will get what it can for its services.
The problem with the equation is that the people who deserve the FPL, the people who actually, by right of citizenship, own it, end up in a position that makes it difficult for them to even get access to it. Ordinary citizens must have complete and reliable access to FPL. It is argued by many that unfettered access to it is even critical to our democracy. As our government depository program dries up and disseminates more and more government information via the internet or formats that require mediating technology or services, access to information becomes less available to the general population.
In fact, over the last century governments have, in some cases, abdicated their responsibility to freely disseminate their laws and legal materials to commercial publishers, making VHPPLM the sole source of access to the law. For example, until the late 1970's, when Lexis came on the scene, the opinions federal district and circuit courts were only published by West Publishing. Many states have ceased publication of their own case law in favor of West's Regional Reporters, and, in some cases ceased publication of their statutes in favor of commercial publication of their codes. This left access to the law beyond the reach of most citizens and, even, many public libraries.
If an informed citizenry is critical to a functioning government, what can be done to make sure that the laws are accessible to everyone who wants to read them? Who looks out for the public, who simply wants, indeed by rights needs free access to government information? Well, Open Access advocates do, as do people and movements that work to build free databases that strive to provide reliable access to primary materials. LII is an example of a service that's been around for a long time and that provides as much access to free information as possible. The problem for aggregators like LII is that the information that they provide is only as good as the sources available to them. And governments are just not very good sources of their own information.
Law.Gov is a movement that is determined to work to raise the quality of government information. They are determined to establish standards for state and local courts, legislatures and agencies to follow in the production and distribution of their own legal materials.
If Law.Gov succeeds in its mission, it will mean that governments and courts will produce better information, in formats that are reliable, accurate and distributed freely to all who need it. And all who need it include both private citizens and providers of VHPPLM. As such, this is good for news for providers of VHPPLM, as well as ordinary consumers of primary legal materials.
As Malamud said in response to a question from the chat room that asked whether he sees Law.Gov as a competitor to Lexis and Westlaw, (paraphrasing) "No, absolutely not! We are simply looking to formulate a system that will assist governments and courts to provide free, reliable access to government information." Lexis and Westlaw, will be the beneficiaries of the movement, as will the public. (Gee, they are members of the public, aren't they?) Nothing in the movement should discourage them from developing their critically important secondary materials.
Law.Gov is entering a phase of self-study and over the next year will be examining how governments and courts can work to systematically and freely publish and distribute government and legal materials. Visit http://public.resource.org/law.gov to learn more about Law.Gov. At the website you can find out about how to donate to the project and support its work, and about a nationwide series of workshops that will be held next year to discuss how its work will be accomplished.