Google is now including full-text legal opinions from U.S. Federal and State District, Appellate, and Supreme courts in Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com). And I really like it. For the lay public, it is fun to search opinions because you not only get judges explaining how a particular law is applied to certain facts in the case, but you also get links to law journals and treatises citing the case and "related scholarly works" (whether it cites your case or not).
What Google Scholar's Legal Opinions Are Not
This product is not going to put Lexis or Westlaw out of business. These files do not cover the time dating from the beginning of our country, nor to the beginnings of the individual states. There are no hyperlinks to statutes, codes, regulations, administrative opinions, or anything else quoted or referred to in the text of the opinions. Finally, there is no citator service to verify that a particular opinion has not been overruled or vacated, distinguished, or otherwise declared of dubious value.
Google has a disclaimer on the "about scholar" page: "Disclaimer: Legal opinions in Google Scholar are provided for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as a substitute for legal advice from a licensed lawyer. Google does not warrant that the information is complete or accurate."
No free site on the internet-including the official state and federal sites-has authoritative, comprehensive, or guaranteed current or preserved archival legal information. (See the American Association of Law Libraries report on Authentication of Online Legal Resources at www.aallnet.org/products/pub_authen_report.asp.) The report found "that a significant number of state online resources are official, but none are authenticated or afford ready authentication by standard methods. State online primary legal resource are, therefore, not sufficiently trustworthy." No other free site can claim it is more authoritative.
So Much for What Google Legal Opinions Are Not-What Are They?
What Google offers is the thoughtful scholarship of appellate justices, crafting an explanation of the law, and how this particular law will be applied to a particular set of facts. There are about 80 years of U.S. federal case law (including tax and bankruptcy courts) and more than 50 years of state case law.
If you want to limit the results to opinions within your state, or just Federal Appellate or U.S. Supreme Court opinions, you can do that. Want to limit by date-you can do that, too.
Searching: I was delighted that the interface is as friendly as other Google products. The Advanced Scholar search button allows you to create relationships among your search terms (phrase, all words, at least one of these words, dates, selected jurisdictions, and "not" certain words, etc.). You can be as specific as you want with author, title, and/or date; or as general in your search, then narrow down your query later.
Results: The highest court opinions come up first, and that is the best way to list them-even Lexis and Westlaw use that rule. The relevance to the search terms and any date restriction is visible-there is a blurb under each returned case with your search terms in context. You can determine at a glance the number of cases citing each opinion in the search results (and you can decide how many case results to display on any one screen). In one of my test searches, a California Supreme Court opinion dating from 1984 was on top, and another California Supreme Court opinion dating from 2004 was second-obviously, I believed, because the top opinion had been cited 520 times, while the more recent opinion had only been cited 87 times. However, just to show that there is a Google algorithm involved, the third listed case dated from 2003 and had been cited 316 times.
When I asked Google's "distinguished engineer," Anurag Acharya, how the results were determined, he said it was "magic." He also noted that while in law there is definitely a hierarchical relationship among courts in a jurisdiction, the goal is to bring back what is "most important to present to a user." In other words, Google begins with the "most common use patterns then see[s] how they get used, then decide[s] how to evolve the process"-fascinating. They're never done improving the search. Here is a link to Acharya's post about adding opinions in the Official Google Blog, http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/11/finding-laws-that-govern-us.html.
The Judicial Opinions
The cases come up with a crisp look, and your search terms are displayed in context. On my office computer, the search terms were highlighted (each in a different color to scan for the most important to you). However, my netbook at home, for some reason, only bolded the search terms. Obviously, there are some quirks in the setup of the different computers.
For citing to the location of a quote, there are indications of the page numbers in the reporter. I would have preferred to have the option to link to a PDF version (often available in Google Books) of a reporter so I can verify the page breaks. I mentioned to Acharya that perhaps this will come in the next wave of improvements. No, he says. Google Books doesn't display as well as Google Scholar, so even though some cases are in both, they are not going to link. I see his point-the lay user wouldn't be interested in that. What is terrific is that the cases cited within an opinion are hyperlinks to those cases. Nifty. You can go backwards, to the cited cases within an opinion, as well as forward to the more recent cases that cite your case.
Bonus material: The "how cited" link at the top of each entry, reveals different treatises, journals, and other cases that have cited and/or quoted the case you are reading. It isn't a citator service, which would reveal whether the case you are reading has been overruled, vacated, etc. But it is a terrific means to locate other relevant cases on the subject, get an overview of the legal scholarship in the field, and discover references to even more books and cases on the subject that can explain the issues involved, elements of proof, and other valuable information. There are even "related documents" that may not have cited your case but appear relevant to Google. More ontological magic.
As you look at the "how cited" column, you see snippets of the case that has cited your opinion, along with search terms in context, and you can determine whether it is relevant enough to "click" on. When you do click on a citing source, you are taken to the relevant portion of the case or article. Nice touch. Other services I have used would dump me on the first screen with a "go fish" attitude-indicating that I should use a "find" or just scan down to discover the relevant portion.
You are not limited to "free" scholarly information either. There are links to HeinOnline.org, JSTOR, and other fee-based services, should you want to take advantage of them. Indeed, if you or your home institution already subscribes and has IP authentication, you go right into the relevant item.
The ability to check out opinions and scholarly writings that have cited your case and then check out what has been said about those opinions (mushrooming your search outwards) can be insanely fascinating. I just frittered away a fun 40 minutes exploring a string of citing and relevant sources emanating from just one case! This could be addictive.
And there are no ads in Google Scholar. None. Nada. Lovely!
Acharya and the Google Scholar team have obviously worked hard to create a product that "worked to empower citizens to find and understand the laws that govern them."
This is a terrific first step.
For other reviews, check out a walk-through of Google Scholar's legal opinion searching (with screen shots) by a Texas appellate attorney, Don Cruse, covering the Supreme Court of Texas. There are also inks to other reviews of Google Scholar's legal opinions by law librarians and legal practitioners. See www.scotxblog.com/news-and-links/google-wades-into-free-legal-research-for-texas-too.