In 2001, when we were thinking about how to use e-books for legal research, we partnered with Lexis Nexis to study a moot court class in a law school. Without access to the documents that we obtained through Lexis, we would not have been able to engage the students and to explore potential designs for such devices.
But that was eight years ago. Today, we could resort to Google Scholar: A couple of days ago, Google announced on its blog that it will be including full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts in results returned by Google Scholar. In addition to each case, Google also returns citations of that case in other opinions. This service is unlikely to put West Publishers or Lexis Nexis out of business, but it does make it considerably easier for the average person (or researcher) to find these cases.
Google arranges search results by citation count — the most frequently-cited document first, then the next, etc. It also allows search to be filtered by date, retrieving only cases from a certain date on. Oddly, it’s not possible to restrict the end date, and it does not appear possible to sort the opinions by date they were issued. While sorting by citation count is useful in some cases, the value of citation in legal cases can evolve over time. What was once considered good precedent may not be considered so today. This is why Lexis and West have an advantage of Google Scholar: these companies provide annotations for citations that reflect the current interpretation of whether the cited case is still considered good precedent.This kind of rich metadata is not available from Google Scholar.
Google also lacks other metadata, such as the appellate history, who argued the case, who the judges were, etc. that would be useful for exploring the collection in a principled manner. Nonetheless, I can readily see the usefulness of this resource for high school civics courses, and for individuals interested in law who do not have access to the expensive legal publishers. To improve this service, I would encourage Google to study how people use these documents in legal research and to design interfaces and to collect metadata to support that work.