In a post earlier today at Legal Blog Watch, The Google Gorilla Enters the Research Game, I wrote about Google’s announcement yesterday that Google Scholar now allows users to search full-text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state appellate and trial courts. I wrote there about the implications of the announcement, but wanted to post here to add my initial thoughts about the search itself.

So far, I like what I see. As it is throughout Google’s various offerings, the search interface is seamless and simple. Search for a case in the same way you’d search for anything on Google — by name, words or a phrase. You can also search by citation, but be careful to put the citation in quotes. If you search 794 F.2d 915, the results will include cases that have “794,” “F.2d” and “915.” But if you search “794 F.2d 915” you get the cited case plus any others that cite it.

As you view a case, a tab on the top of your screen lets you switch to a second screen showing how it was cited. This shows a list of cases and articles that cite your case. It also includes a separate list of cites showing a quote extracted from the case at the point of the citation — in other words, the proposition for which your case is cited. Click on any of those quotes and jump right to that point in the citing case.

I could not find within Google Scholar a description of the scope of the case law database. According to Tim Stanley of Justia, it includes U.S. Supreme Court opinions since 1 US 1 (pre – 1776), federal circuit opinions since 1 F 2d 1 (1924+), and many federal district court opinions. Opinions from all 50 state supreme courts are included since 1950. I was able to determine that intermediate appellate courts are included for some states, but I could not tell whether they are included to the same extent as state supreme courts.

The Advanced Scholar Search lets you choose to search just federal cases or just a single state’s cases. You can search multiple states only by checking boxes for each state, so if you want to search all 50 states but not federal, you’ll have a lot of checking to do.

There remain lots of questions about Google Scholar’s case law search. Google offers no documentation so answers are hard to come by. Besides not knowing the precise parameters of the database, we also do not know how often new cases are added — a key piece of missing information. We also do not know what kind of quality control Google has in place to ensure the cases are checked and error free.

Still, putting the power of Google search behind a comprehensive database of federal and state cases is more than just a good start. Google’s engineers clearly put a lot of thought and effort into this and I expect there will be further refinements and enhancements to come.

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.