Cornell’s LII

The groundbreaking history of Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII) and the resources it makes available (for instance the Supreme Court decisions) are too well known to Slaw regulars to detail, but it is puzzling how absent the LII seems to be from the consciousness of other OA law projects. The most recent example is the release of CC US court decisions by In a press release the CEO of the group Carl Malamud claims that “The U.S. judiciary has allowed their entire work product to be locked up behind a cash register” which is misleading.

Another good example comes from John Markoff of the NYT, who wrote in 2007, again in reference to,

Last week, Mr. Malamud began using advanced computer scanning technology to copy decisions, which have been available only in law libraries or via subscription from the Thomson West unit of the Canadian publishing conglomerate Thomson, and LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier, based in London.

The effect of this lacuna is obvious from the discussion that follows. Here is a good example from Boing Boing.

Not that LII should be referenced in every press release, but if even the experts in OA law are failing to situate their projects in a helpful way, it makes me wonder whether the information will be available to the public in a useful form. Complete access to all a court’s decisions has its pitfalls without the context necessary to make good use of the materials. Taking a look at the interface for gaining access to the release makes it more clear than the press release does that this is a resource for programmers, not for the public. But will programmers be able to distinguish between the parts of that law that are still active, and those parts that are now superceded? How to ensure that all or even most projects using these materials are even aware that this is an issue? Looking at the ‘known bugs’ notice in the Federal materials’ readme file, it is clear that there are non-trivial issues in the basic markup of the data, but there is nothing on the site linking to basic information about how case law is structured and used in the US.

Providing context is actually one of the LII’s next big directions, and to do so you need to know who is using, or might use, the materials. Tom Bruce and the LII are looking towards this. As they indicate on their website under Future Plans, they are

Undertaking a three year plan to explore integrated editorial and software strategies for facilitating the use and understanding of law materials by those who are not expert researchers of U.S. legal documents – including students, professionals from other fields heavily touched by law, lawyers and judges from outside the U.S., and ordinary citizens

And is the public good effectuated by access balanced against the privacy, monetary, and information overload costs? Such considerations are at play in Peter Martin’s 2008 paper Online Access to Court Records – from Documents to Data, Particulars to Patterns.

But now to the fun bits. It was a pleasure to sit down with Tom Bruce and his staff to find out a bit more about their plans and current projects. As a bonus, I got a tour of their facilities on the top floor of Myron Taylor Hall. Here’s the tip off to any law students that happen to wander near:


And here are a couple snaps of the servers

nellcophotos6-036.jpg nellcophotos6-039.jpg nellcophotos6-040.jpg

which are kept in a nice cool closet, served by this fully adjustable atmospheric ambiance control system.


And here is Tom continuing his efforts to share information effectively:



  1. Hi Michael –

    Just to clear something up … at, we work closely with and have the highest respect for the work of Cornell’s LII. Peter Martin and Tom Bruce are not only the folks that started this all going, they are (as you point out) the leaders in areas such as how to do citation. We consult with them on a regular basis and they participate in activities with us. Tom Bruce joined us (and a dozen other folks active in this field) in October for a legal free law summit and we’re all getting together this August in Chicago.

    The cool thing about this movement to put free law on the Internet is how groups like Cornell and AltLaw have joined with commercial legal providers like Justia and Fastcase and Internet nonprofits like CC, Public.Resource, and the Internet Archive … accessible law on the Internet seems like an idea whose time has come.

    Best regards,


  2. Thanks Carl. I figured my comments might reach you, and my apologies if they were incomplete. Is it mainly for the publicity value that new OA law efforts tend to overstate the dearth of free legal resources on the internet, or do you see other causes?

  3. In a way, we have a very rich environment for legal resources on the Internet (thanks to folks like LII). But, the primary research materials for U.S. law (cases and codes of the states and the federal government) are still very incomplete, and until those public domain materials are available to the public, the Internet resources will always be a poor second cousin to the high-priced commercial services.

    For PR purposes, one can point to the half-full part of the glass, but if you do that people will think everything is fine and no work needs to be done. That would perpetuate the system where we have two systems of law, a system for the rich who can afford the deluxe services and another half-system for those without those resources. So, I tend to emphasize the half-empty part of the glass as a way of calling attention to the problem.

    Ultimately, this becomes a call to the legal profession, particularly the judiciary and the law schools, that they could (should) do more.

    $0.02, YMMV. :)

  4. Great post Michael. LII has been weirdly absent from many of the stories you mention. Not putting this on Carl’s shoulders, but credit was due, or as Simon F. might put it… Props to LII! ;)

  5. The concern as to the half full glass is first to have an appreciation as to the size of the glass – or better yet – glasses – as one surveys the universe of judicial and agency opinions. As an example, there are differences not to be ignored between the conduct of business by trial as compared to appellate courts, federal and state, and different levels of courts. There are also issues of corrections of opinions, amendment, and citation and of course published versus unpublished opinions.

    While discussing with a colleague John B. West’s 1909 Article Multiplicity of Reports, he pointed out that John West had a hands on understanding of how courts and judges worked in a wide array of jurisdictions all over the country, and that this understanding informed his efforts to create standards of legal publishing.

    The recent stories seem not even to attempt to grapple with the entire universe of caselaw, with the metrics of federal judicial opinions much less those of all US courts and agencies, and the fact that much caselaw never ends up in printed volumes. The stories are also populated with exaggerations and outright misstatement of fact.

    Let’s face it – no only Cornell, but a lot of other law schools have laboured in case law distribution – Villanova University School of Law, Georgetown University Law Center, Emory University School of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Pace University and Touru Law Center, Washburn University School of Law, and Washington University School of Law. US Supreme Court cases have been available on the Internet for years – from law schools, the Court itself, and even older cases from FLITE. And, interestingly, and never mentioned in the stories is the fact that the last 5 years of federal appellate opinions are available for free on LexisOne and West’s FindLaw.

    The problem is not that the case law is not on the Internet, but that the presentation and access is not regularized.

    I would disagree that the law schools should get any more into this business -it is the responsibility of the courts to provide this access, and many courts, in the US do in fact do an admirable job. On the other hand, other courts warn that their Internet versions are not authoritative.

    The federal courts were asked by Congress in the E-Government Act of 2002 to remedy this situation – but, alas, despite progress, the federal courts are not yet there.

    The FastCase Federal Reporter cases obtained by Justia and by Carl are an example of a confined set of cases that have been “regularized” by West into something that looks more like the Patent Database. And, posting them on a public ftp site is a service, greater than some might imagine – for the simple reason that Carl used the West Fed. Rep. Cite as the html title metatag.

    So, try this – plug in the West cite to 158 F.3d 674 in Google – and, the first or second retrieval will most likely be to Carl’s site 158 F.3d. 674. Wow. But, of course, if one is searching for the case by case name and court, things will not be so concise. And, it is too bad that Carl did not include in the html title metatag the case name and date.

    But, not so fast – in a way, this is a one time trick for federal appellate cases professionally prepared in a methodical away, and with a defined universe. Actually, it could be emulated for US Supreme Court cases but I am waiting to see how the US District Court cases will be handled, unless someone decides to start scanning in the Federal Supplement and Federal Rules Decisions etc. It is too bad FastCase did not include the West internal pagination in these cases.

    And the rub there is this: the case below in 158 F3. 674 is not to be found in any printed West volumes – but is to be found only on Westlaw or Lexis – the citation being No. 94 Civ. 0589, 1997 WL 266972 (S.D.N.Y. May 19, 1997). I picked this case 158 F3. 674 for it is the West appeal of the HyperLaw (not Matthew Bender) text decision establishing the ability of FastCase to copy the Federal Reporter.

    Alan Sugarman