Friday, August 24, 2007

Altlaw

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.

14 comments:

Tim said...

Mike,

(This is Tim Wu if my signature doesn't make that clear.)

Thanks for the write-up. As for the name, I happen to like the name Altlaw. It is short for "Alternative distribution mechanism for the Laws of the United States," nothing too kinky in that. Your imagination has got the better of you.

On the other hand, our original choice was not Altlaw, but "the common law"; but of course most of the good urls related to common and law were already taken. We do have lawcommons.org, but it serves a different purpose.

Our working title, if you're interested, was "Eastlaw."

egarber said...

As a non-lawyer without a lot of time to research cases -- yet realizing my duty as a citizen to know about such things -- I applaud you guys in academia for trying to make this stuff acessible.

And I think Tim is probably right as to the name. It's not like it's called s&mlaw or something (not that I would know about such things) :)

Thanks again!

Carl said...

"Alt" to me merely conjures images of the spam-soaked usenet hierarchy.

C.E. Petit said...

Two general comments:

(1) There is already a pretty good, free resource for SCotUS opinions at
http://supreme.justia.com/us/year/
(search engine and alternate entry points also availabled on the site). I hope that Altlaw will focus on adding in the parts that Justia does not cover -- that is, the trial and appeals courts below the Supreme Court.

(2) Die, Bluebook, die! Ultimately, the real problem that I see with Altlaw, and all other search engines currently available without charge, is that they'll allow me to find materials. They won't allow me to cite them, though, because there are no pinpoint citations. Hyperlaw's death is a shame in that sense.

Thomas R. Bruce said...

Michael:

The LII at Cornell has had cross-Circuit search in place in one form or another since 2000, and in a form that actually works decently since 2004 (yes, it took us that long to figure it out). You can't search the Supreme Court decisions from the same page, it's true, though our cross-site search does do that (along with the full US Code and WEX, our modest effort at an encyclopedia) in a limited way (it only returns the first ten results from each collection).

FindLaw had (in its original noncommercial incarnation) some such thing in 1995 or 1996, IIRC.

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