Newletter Masthead
April 2000· Vol. 25, No. 2, p. 6

Finding a court opinion on the web

Peter Ash, MD

Chair, Computer Committee and AAPL Website Editor

The Web is a natural for making law codes and cases publicly available. A variety of legal databases, listed below and on the AAPL Website, provide ready access to statutes. Court opinions, being public documents, are increasingly available for free. However, court opinions are distributed through many different sites, are accessed by different search engines, and coverage of cases decided in the pre-Web days is spotty. Because the databases and search engines work differently, there is no simple algorithm about how to search effectively. In the examples below, I will try to illustrate general principles for finding a case on the Web.

There are three basic strategies for locating a case: 1) Free legal search engines and databases; 2) General search engines; and 3) Commercial sites.

Let's assume you have a list of the 20 newly designated Landmark cases (list available on the AAPL website, and want to review some of them. The easiest to find are U.S. Supreme Court cases, such as Pennsylvania v. Yeskey . A good place to start is with the Legal Information Institute site maintained by the Cornell University Law School ( (That link, and the links to other legal databases, are available on the Forensic Resources page of the AAPL website). Clicking our way from the home page to "Court Opinions" to "Supreme Court" will bring up a search screen. The idea at a search screen is (1) to put in as little as necessary to save typing time and (2) to put in enough to produce a reasonable number (10-20) of hits. Yeskey is an uncommon name, so we type "Yeskey", hit search, and ... two result links come up, which lead quickly to the opinion.

Principle 1: first try to find a case by name on a legal database.

Emboldened by our success, we move on to Corcoran v United Healthcare , a 1992 Court of Appeals case. The web was hardly in existence in 1992. We proceed as before, and soon find ourselves at the Cornell site regarding federal circuit courts and note that there is a link for each circuit. Corcoran is a 5th Circuit case, so we follow the link to the 5th Circuit website, do a word search on "corcoran" (searches aren't case-sensitive) and ....get a list of 51 links identified by docket numbers. Docket numbers? Who wants to click 51 docket numbers? Computers were designed to relieve people from doing boring, repetitive tasks like clicking docket numbers. Maybe there's a better search engine. Back we go to the Cornell site, and click the link for ALL circuit courts. Enter "corcoran" (figuring "United" and "Healthcare" are so general they won't help much), and up comes a list of 500 and some cases. Fortunately the description of the second looks like our case, even though the title of the Web page isn't given, and it leads to the opinion.

Principle 2: if one search engine or link doesn't give you what you want, try another, similar one.

Now for a state case, In re Young & Cunningham. We go to the Cornell site, click state opinions, and ...get a list of states. Unfortunately, the cite doesn't give the state (it should, I know, but this is the real world). Other legal database sites have the same problem. We need another strategy. We can try LawCrawler on, and "Young Cunningham" gives... 11 sites pertaining to the ProBowl and other sports sites, but nothing that looks legal. We try "In re Young and Cunningham" and.... zero results. Search engine technology is improving, but it's improving faster for general web use than for focused databases. My current favorite general search engine is Google ( Google has a method of ranking sites that seems to list the ones you want near the top of the list and to restrict the list to a manageable number of hits, unlike Alta Vista which tends to return zillions of hits in no apparent order. Going to Google, we try "In re Young and Cunningham" (in quotes: the quotes are important - we don't want to match everything that has either "Young" or "Cunningham") and.... we get one result, the AAPL Web page list of new Landmark cases! This, at least, would give us the cite, if we didn't have it. Now we enter the cite (again in quotation marks) in Google, "857 P.2d 989" and ... get a list of 10 hits, several of which indicate on the search page that this is a Washington case.

Principle 3: If legal search engines don't work, try general purpose search engines.

Now we can go back to the Cornell site and find our way to State of Washington cases. Each state is developing their own website for state courts, and their completeness and ease of use vary widely. Wending our way through the Washington judiciary site we find.... opinions are only left online for 90 days. There's a commercial site you can sign up with to get other opinions. Most states do better than Washington: the typical pattern is that courts are adding their opinions to their websites and leaving them, but they are not going back and adding older, pre-Web opinions very quickly. This means that most state opinions pre-1996 are not on the state websites.

Principle 4: State court opinions vary widely in their availability with relatively few pre-1996 opinions currently available on public sites.

The final step is to go to one of the big commercial sites such as Lexis ( or Westlaw ( . Both of these now allow per-use access billed to a credit card. Downloading one case currently costs between $9-10. However, these sites also run specials. For some time around the last AAPL meeting, most users going to Lexis through an educational institution server had free access, but that access suddenly ended. As I write, however, Westlaw has a free 14 day trial period with no continuing obligation. So, we sign up for a free Westlaw trial, enter "857 P.2d 989" and there's In re Young and Cunningham in five pages which we can save or print (the official Westlaw download costs extra) for free.

Principle 5: Individual cases can be obtained by credit card charge from Lexis or Westlaw, but also check for specials.


Do you have a good tip or link for finding cases? E-mail it to me at