Those of us who enjoy extensive access to the very expensive Lexis and Westlaw services may not appreciate how lucky we are compared to anyone trying to research legal issues without that luxury. There are some important sites out there, particularly the Legal Information Institute run by Cornell Law School. But their search functions have been limited and their main service (still a very important one) is indexing key cases under topic headings. In today’s information environment, where “Everything is Miscellaneous,” users expect to be their own indexers of content through search. If you want to find cases about DMCA violations and there is no DMCA heading in an index, you may be out of luck unless there is good search functionality.
What was needed, obviously, was a database of judicial opinions with a good Boolean search engine. One of the great things about cyberlaw people is that many of them know just enough tech (or their friends do) to convert the professorial “someone ought to write code that does X” into: “Hey kids, let’s write that code!” A group from Columbia Law School and the University of Colorado Law School have now done just that by designing the now-released-in-Beta AltLaw, a sort of Google for judicial opinions. The database remains small for the moment, but it already contains the last 10-15 years of opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court and the 13 federal appellate courts. They are working to add the all important West reporter cites and include older cases.
So, big congratulations and thanks to Paul Ohm, Stuart Sierra, and Tim Wu for making it happen. And a special shout-out to law student/blogger/FOSS activist/certified FOIL Luis Villa for pitching in. (FOIL = “Friend of Info/Law”!) We’re so proud!