New access to case reporters

Some time ago, The Legal Genealogist was over the moon at the very thought of having free online access to the case reporters held by the Harvard Law School Library.

It was nearly four years ago that Harvard announced that it had partnered with Ravel Law to digitize 40,000 law books, containing 40 million pages, give or take a few, of court decisions that begin with cases that were decided before the Constitution of the United States was even written.1

That project moved forward, slowly as we’d expected — but we all got a bit worried when Ravel Law was acquired by one of the biggest players in the commercial legal research fields, LexisNexis.2

Not to worry — not only is the Ravel Law search system still available and still free online at https://www.ravellaw.com/search, but there’s a new second way to access the collection, through the website of Harvard’s Caselaw Access Project itself.3

Caselaw Access Project

The website reports that, to date, there have been 6.7 million unique state cases scanned, spanning 40 million pages, from 627 reporters — those books published in series with names like New Jersey Law or Arizona Reports and containing the decisions of state-court judges on a wide variety of topics of interest to all historical researchers.4

If that’s not enough, add in roughly 1.7 million federal cases, spanning more than 9.5 million pages from 32 reporters with the decisions of federal court judges as well.5

And what we end up with is free online access to just about all the published court decisions of state and federal trial and appeals courts — and every bit of it word-searchable.

Here’s what the project has to say about itself:

The Caselaw Access Project (“CAP”) expands public access to U.S. law. Our goal is to make all published U.S. court decisions freely available to the public online, in a consistent format, digitized from the collection of the Harvard Law Library.

CAP includes all official, book-published United States case law — every volume designated as an official report of decisions by a court within the United States.

Our scope includes all state courts, federal courts, and territorial courts for American Samoa, Dakota Territory, Guam, Native American Courts, Navajo Nation, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Our earliest case is from 1658, and our most recent cases are from 2018.

Each volume has been converted into structured, case-level data broken out by majority and dissenting opinion, with human-checked metadata for party names, docket number, citation, and date.6

The website allows searching of the entire database with a great deal of precision. Users can search cases, courts, jurisdictions, and reporters. We can enter search terms like names or places in the Full-Text Search field, using basic Boolean “and” search techniques. Using quotes around a search term makes it searchable as a phrase. And we can add fields to refine the search — adding the jurisdiction (what state) or the citation to a case where we know that. There’s a help page that explains the search system.

Or we can browse the cases for a specific place and time. Here, however, we may need to poke around a bit, because what’s listed on the entry page for reading and browsing caselaw may not reflect what’s actually there. As one example, the listing for Arizona Supreme Court cases published in the reporter series Arizona Reports is shown on the entry page as limited to the years 1886-1911. Nope. If you click through, you’ll find every volume through volume 242, and that has cases from 2017.

Users can download cases as well, to read or study offline. Alas, we’re limited to “only” 500 cases a day… “Only” in quotes there since that’s plenty for even this law-geek genealogist — and more than enough for most. If you do need more, you can register as a research scholar and you’d be subject to separate rules.

There’s also some stuff that’s just plain fun. Want to see the distribution of cases mentioning the word “witchcraft”? You can, here. Or how about the most-used words in California cases published each year from 1853 to 2015? Yup. That’s here as well.

Everything on the website is subject to a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0), meaning we’re free to “copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format” and “remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially” as long as we “give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made” and, if we do make changes, distribute the changed version under the same license.7

So have fun, reading the law, again.

For free, forever, thanks to Harvard Law School’s Library.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Reading the law again,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 27 Aug 2019).

SOURCES

  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Harvard’s digitization project,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 2 Nov 2015 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 27 Aug 2019).
  2. See Connie Loizos, “Venture-backed Ravel Law sells to LexisNexis,” Tech Crunch, posted 10 June 2017 (https://techcrunch.com/ : accessed 27 Aug 2019).
  3. A great big tip of the hat to reader Francie Kennedy who sent along the link to the website.
  4. “Our data,” Caselaw Access Project, Harvard Law School (https://case.law/ : accessed 27 Aug 2019).
  5. Ibid.
  6. About,” Caselaw Access Project, Harvard Law School (https://case.law/ : accessed 27 Aug 2019).
  7. Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0),” Creative Commons (https://creativecommons.org/ : accessed 27 Aug 2019).
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