News and information useful to Cleveland-Marshall College of Law students, faculty and staff.

Archive for the ‘Free Web Research’


Federal Government Information Research Tools: FOIA Requests

Government bodies produce a voluminous amount of documents and records. While much is available online through sources such as GPO.gov and individual agency websites, many other records and communications are not. To gain access to additional federal government information, researchers submit requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Lawyers, journalists, and other researchers frequently rely on FOIA requests to obtain these documents. Under FOIA, the public has the right to request any information that has not already been made publicly available. Agencies are required to disclose the information in response, as long as it does not fall under one of the nine exemptions. These exemptions include matters of national security, law enforcement, and personal privacy. To learn more about FOIA and how to make a request, check out FOIA.gov. For a summary of the process and a few interesting stats, check out this infographic.

Different Results from Different Databases

The statement ‘different search engines and databases produce different results’ may elicit various responses from people. Some may think that the statement is obviously true, some may believe search engines are all basically the same, and some may believe that you get what you pay for.

For law students who have routinely relied on Google searching, this article may be especially important. Habits learned in undergraduate coursework may not translate well to law school research. Google and the big-box searches on Westlaw and Lexis are run by algorithms, not by the user. While the algorithms use what the researcher inputs, how they come up with the results is not necessarily clear. Furthermore, the algorithms being proprietary to each database will be different depending on which database the researcher is using.

A recent ABA Journal article titled Results May Vary in Legal Research Databases investigates different databases and crunches some numbers regarding relevant results. The article looks at Westlaw, Lexis, Ravel, Google Scholar, Casetext, and Fastcase and compares relevant and unique cases. An important point for the researcher or student to internalize is that not every case was appearing in each database. While the reader should review the article for the particulars, researchers should take away a few key points from the study:

  • Every algorithm is different.
  • Every database has a point of view.
  • The variability in search results requires researchers to go beyond keyword searching.
  • Keyword searching is just one way to enter a research universe.
  • Redundancy in searching is still of paramount importance.
  • Term and connector searching is still a necessary research skill.

Free Online Research Tools: Congressional Research Service Reports

US Capitol Building illuminated at night The Library of Congress announced on September 17, 2018 that a new website is now live, making reports from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) available to the public. The CRS is Congress’ nonpartisan “think tank” that conducts research and publishes reports for Congressional committees and Members of Congress. The experts and researchers at CRS provide analysis of an extensive range of topics. The thorough and nonpartisan nature of CRS reports makes them a valuable source on important and current topics for anybody, including legal researchers. CRS reports can be useful for legislative history research because they provide unbiased background information from a legislative perspective on issues before Congress.

Despite the fact that CRS reports are taxpayer funded, these reports were only made available to legislators. Some reports eventually made their way out to the public, if a congressional staffer chose to share. Recently, efforts had been made to make more reports widely available to the public with websites such as EveryCRSreport.com working to collect and share over 14,500 CRS reports. The new website from the Library of Congress serves as an official source of CRS reports, with over 600 of the active reports available at launch and more being added over time. Users may enter keywords to search the database or browse the index by clicking the search button without entering terms.

For more on legislative history or additional law and policy sources, check out our Legislative History Research Guide and Free Online Legal Research Guide.

Free Online Research Tools: CourtListener Adds Docket Alert Feature

image of an alarm clock On Tuesday, August 21, 2018, the Free Law Project announced the addition of PACER Docket Alerts on CourtListener.com. The alerts are available via RECAP, the Free Law Project’s archive of PACER docket information and court documents. To set up alerts, find the docket you want to follow in RECAP and click the “Get Alert” button located under the case name. Alerts are sent via email every time the docket has a new entry.

For more background, check out this post about CourtListener and this post about RECAP.

Checkout Casetext: Free Online Legal Research

casetext logoCasetext is one of a growing number of free online sources for legal research. Developed by attorneys, data scientists, and engineers, Casetext offers free access to over 10 million cases, statutes, and regulations, plus articles and commentary from leading litigators. Coverage includes all United States Supreme Court decisions, Circuit Court and District Court decisions from 1925-present, all State Supreme and Appellate Courts decisions from 1950-present (including Ohio), federal statutes and regulations, and statutes from selected states (not including Ohio). To access the free database, enter search terms in the search box at the top of the page, then use the filters on the left-hand side to narrow the results.

When accessing court opinions, several features are included for free. Casetext shows negative treatment flags, key passages that highlight the most cited and discussed passages of your case, summaries from subsequent cases showing how your case fits into a legal argument, and insights from experts commentary from litigators and/or law professors.

Additional features are available for a fee. Casetext also offers CARA, a subscription-based research tool that uses machine learning and AI to assist with your legal research. For example, paying users can upload briefs, memos, and other legal documents, and CARA will find relevant cases, statutes, and regulations.