Supreme Court News Site Looks Nice, But Disappoints on Content

Thomson Reuters – the company that owns Westlaw – has been beefing up its coverage of legal affairs in recent years, with reporting and commentary available through the Thomson Reuters News & Insight website. As part of this push into enhanced legal coverage, the company recently launched a new offshoot devoted to covering the Supreme Court’s 2011-2012 term, called Case by Case: The U.S. Supreme Court.

The site uses interactive graphical tools to help users find information about the court, the justices and the cases, with links to analytical and legal materials, including motions, briefs and opinions. While the graphical elements hold the promise of being useful, the site’s usefulness is quickly lost for anyone who does not have a Westlaw subscription.

Let’s start with the good news — the graphics. Visually, the site is well designed, making good use of its various visual elements. Across the top of the page are pictures of each of the justices. Hover over a picture for a quick snippet about the justice. For Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for example, the snippet says, “Obama appointee, court’s first Hispanic justice.”

The center part of the page highlights a particular case. In the center of the page is a synopsis of the case and links to any relevant news articles or legal documents. Framing the synopsis on either side are brief profiles of the lead attorneys for the petitioner and respondent, with links to their briefs.

Across the bottom of the page is an interactive timeline for the term. Click on a day to see the cases set for argument. Alternatively, you can use a color-coded index to filter the timeline to show only cases pertaining to a particular topic. Red signifies intellectual property cases; olive reveals only First Amendment cases.

Interactive timeline lets you filter cases by issue and see when they are scheduled for argument.

While the visuals are clever, the site’s usefulness ends there for anyone who isn’t a Westlaw subscriber. Although the site provides links to briefs, decisions and various other documents, all links lead to Westlaw. If you want to see the petitioner’s brief in a case, you’ll need a Westlaw subscription. If you want to see the court’s decision in a case, you’ll need a Westlaw subscription.

Joe Hodnicki hit the nail on the head when he wrote about this site at Law Librarian Blog, “This is another corporate avenue to promote subscribing to Westlaw to access cited content.”

If any of this were content proprietary to Westlaw, I might understand this set up. But many if not most of these documents are publicly available online. The Supreme Court’s opinions are available directly from the court itself, as well as from any number of other sites. Briefs are available from the American Bar Association’s stellar site, Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases. All sorts of background and commentary are available from the preeminent Supreme Court source, SCOTUSblog.

The bottom line is this: If you want snappy visuals, visit the new Thomson Reuters Supreme Court site. If you want substantive information without having to pay for it, go instead to one of the other Supreme Court sites I mentioned here.