We pay a couple thousand dollars a month to Thomson Reuters — owners of the Westlaw database — for the privilege of searching and retrieving decisions by the federal and state judges who are paid from our tax dollars to decide the cases in our public justice system. Even though these decisions are the backbone of our common law — that is, precedent-based — legal system, We The People don’t have effective access to them without paying the couple-thousand dollars a month for a Westlaw or Lexis subscription. You could go to a law library and do old fashioned dead-trees book research but, among other things, you’d be reading books published by Thomson Reuters, and you could not remotely afford to purchase these books on your own. And access to those privately-published, drop-dead-expensive books depends on having access to a law library; they’re not generally available at your average public library.
There are cheaper services, but they are far less comprehensive, so you could never be sure you are searching everything your opponent is or the judge expects you to. The only publicly available service is PACER which has no full text search function, and charges 10 cents a page to download decisions. You can only search by case “type” and then just guess which cases have relevant decisions. There is simply no way it could replace the full-text Boolean search capability of Westlaw or Lexis.
So mostly we just grumble and open a vein each month, while Thomson Reuters and Lexis/Nexis make large piles of money being the gatekeepers of our judicial system.
Then we get an email like this:
To our customers:
As part of our commitment to transparency, I wanted to alert you to some errors related to publishing cases in Westlaw® and our print volumes that we have now corrected.
In March, Thomson Reuters became aware that small portions of text were missing[*] in a number of new cases posted to Westlaw due to the introduction of an upgrade to our PDF conversion process in November 2014.
. . .
Our analysis[**] of the cases found that none of these issues resulted in any change to the meaning of the law. To provide clarity, we are posting examples of the issues, as well as a listing of all corrected cases, here. We will post all affected cases with corrections highlighted within the text.
. . .
We are very aware of our crucial role in supporting the U.S. legal system, and there is nothing more important to us than delivering the best possible solutions and customer service to you.[***] Please accept our apologies for our errors. We are very sorry for the inconvenience.
Global Head of Product & Editorial
So for the thousands we and millions of other lawyers pay them each month, we can’t even get a reliable account of the cases that constitute the written record of the American judicial system. And this is just the errors Thomson Reuters has “become aware” of.
At this point in the evolution of document formatting and search technology, there is no reason why the following system shouldn’t be in place:
- All judicial decisions online in fully-searchable format.
- A taxpayer-funded, free, public database that permits full-text Boolean searches, that is, that permits any American with access to the internet to do the legal research necessary to understand our legal system.
Call it The Law Nerd Manifesto.
*And by “missing” we mean “the case no longer reads the way it was written by the judge.”
**And by “analysis” we mean “frantic ass-covering maneuvers.”
***”Well, almost nothing. We also like rolling around like Scrooge McDuck in the massive piles of cash we reap from publishing THE CASES THAT CONSTITUTE OUR JUDICIAL SYSTEM. Bwaahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”
Sounds like someone isn’t getting enough ketchup or perhaps needs a nice slice of rhubarb pie. Fondly G. Keillor
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Pie, please. Thanks!
Wow. And yet I’m not entirely surprised this problem exists. It’s so similar to what plagues much?most? academic publishing. For ex, I often work with a variety of academics who spend years carefully investigating critical aspects of fair trade and what it is, or is not, delivering for farmers. While some of that work can still end up flawed these researchers usually produce the highest quality information and analysis. But few can actually read it because there’s a paywall that charges the public $25 per article. So instead the interested Joe or Jane Public reads a free article written in a week, or maybe even a day, by a journalist or other writer who themselves may or not be paid. The quality of that content is, of course, wildly variable.
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