My colleague Tim Wu and University of Colorado Prof Paul Ohm have launched a beta version of Altlaw, a free searchable database of recent (last 5-15 years) decisions by the US Supreme Court and the federal courts of appeals. The site fills an important gap: No other free site permits you to do full-text searches of multiple circuit courts simultaneously. That's a huge improvement over other portals out there (including my masters at FindLaw.) As Tim acknowledges in this post, Altlaw still has limited coverage, but it's a start. When it's out of beta, Altlaw will be better still. I have two gripes I'll air, one directed at the site, the other at my government.
First, as to the site, I wish that Tim and Paul had chosen a different name. As they are no doubt aware, on the net, the prefix "alt" often connotes something kinky, if not downright illegal. True, "alt" also connotes a commitment to open-source-anti-establishmentarianism, but the target audience for Altlaw is Jane and Joe Public, not your typical hipster tech geek.
Second, my main gripe: Why on Earth isn't something like this---but with coverage going back to the landing of the Mayflower---being provided by the government? The Library of Congress provides us with Thomas, a brilliant resource for legislative materials, but for the judicial branch, we're stuck with incomplete and spotty decentralized websites on a circuit-by-circuit basis. Even the Supreme Court's website only goes back to 1991.
Altlaw is useful and will become more so, but there is no excuse for the government's failure to provide these materials in a user-friendly format---or at least to contract out to some firm (West, Lexis, Ohm & Wu, whatever) to do so. Obviously, West and Lexis have a vested interest in preventing good free access, but that hardly counts as an argument. To the extent that prior government contracts prevent the government from making all judicial materials available freely searchable and downloadable, those contracts should be bought out.