Access to Case Materials

The highest profile work performed by state high courts is the disposition of disputes and resultant caselaw. Visitors of all types to a state court website, from lawyers to the general public, expect to find decisions or other case materials. While most state courts provide some online access to documents related to their cases, considerable variation persists in the extent of that access, how case materials are organized and the formats in which they are provided.

Many visitors likely will be looking for recent opinions, but ideally a court’s decisions will be searchable within a variety of parameters, such as date, term, name, citation, or through a text search. Perhaps the best example is Alaska’s search page, provided by Westlaw, which allows a visitor to search for cases by citation, date of decision, party name, judge, opinion type, docket number, counsel, or with a general word search, which can be helpful if searching by issue area. The search page is also remarkably clean-looking and easy to navigate.

Alaska’s solution to making opinions available through the well-known, proprietary resource Westlaw is extensive in terms of the flexibility of search options.

This solution through Westlaw has been in place in Alaska since 2006. Even though it lacks the search functionality needed for serious research, it gives users a well-known, proprietary resource with flexible search options.

“West agreed to power the service for us free of charge, and allowed us to offer it free on the internet, stripping the cases of proprietary added features like headnotes and pin cites,” said Susan Falk, Alaska State Law Librarian.

A similar approach powers the opinion search page of California’s courts. Partnering with LexisNexis, California allows individuals to search by natural language terms, case citation, the names of parties, or judge, or to construct a Boolean search with terms and connectors. Searches can be limited by date or cover the state’s entire collection, which reaches back to 1850.

Much like Alaska, California has a non-monetary contract with LexisNexis for this service. The public has the ability to access the information for free, but without the advanced features available through LexisNexis’ paid service. The public has responded positively to this service as the site receives more than 35,000 visits every month.

North Dakota allows visitors to search for Supreme Court opinions by a variety of factors, including many of the above, as well as by a list of prescribed topics or via Free Text, which crafts a search query from a natural language entry or question:

The state’s coverage of opinions by search begins in December 1965, and opinions can also be listed by month and year going back to 1996.

North Dakota is one of several states that provide supreme court opinions in hypertext markup language, or html format. North Dakota chose this format because it enables better search capabilities, allows for hyperlinks to cases cited within the opinion and improves readability. The opinions are also available for download through WordPerfect.

Other formats used for opinions include Portable Document Format (pdf) and Microsoft Word. The html format has several advantages: it is searchable, allows opinions to be presented in an easily readable form (see below), and is effortlessly accessible to browsers, unlike pdf or Word documents which must be read through application add-ons or downloaded. However, html does not do a good job, generally speaking, of preserving pagination, margins or spacing formats that are often important for opinions or legal documents. For those purposes, the pdf format is preferable, and several states make opinions available in both html and pdf formats to meet the needs of different user populations.

Some documents in pdf format are searchable, typically because they are initially rendered in the format or converted directly from a word-processing form, rather than scanned from a hard copy. Scanned documents should be avoided, although they may be the only feasible option for archival materials when electronic versions do not exist and more sophisticated approaches like optical character recognition fail. Not only are scanned pdfs not searchable, limiting their utility in databases and as downloads, their file sizes are larger, affecting storage space on hard drives.

Expansion of e-filing capabilities lends itself to the practice of making documents submitted to courts available online.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court implemented mandatory e-filing of appellate briefs in 2009. Every brief filed since then can be found in a searchable database online. Briefs can be searched by a number of parameters, including case number, attorney or party names, business names, county, date and case status.

"Anyone can access the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Access site and type in a case number and search the docket, which links to these filings. ... Reporters appreciate this because they are able to better flesh out the issues and to prepare to write or report about a case." 

-- Tom Sheehan, Court Information Officer for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Wisconsin’s e-filing project was implemented in-house through a joint effort between the clerk’s office and IT staff.

Case briefs from 1992 to 2009 can be found on the University of Wisconsin’s Law Library site. The UW Law Library has made these documents available to the public for free. The Wisconsin Supreme Court provides a link to this service from their case search page.

The Kentucky Supreme Court provides a link to the Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University’s site, which hosts appellate briefs for the supreme court back to 1999 and for the court of appeals from October 2005. A search page, below, permits visitors to see briefs for cases scheduled for oral argument or for cases decided by month and year and has a field to enter a search term. Briefs are in pdf format and most appear to be scanned documents, however.

> New Media: Audio and Video