Harvard Gives Free Online Access to 40 Million Pages of U.S. Case Law: Explore 6.4 Million Cases Dating Back to 1658

There was a time—a strange time in pop cul­ture his­to­ry, I’ll grant—when legal dra­mas were every­where in tele­vi­sion, pop­u­lar fic­tion, and film. Next to the barn-burn­ing court­room set pieces in A Few Good Men and A Time to Kill, for exam­ple, scenes of lawyers por­ing over case law with loos­ened ties, high heels kicked off, and mar­ti­nis and scotch­es in hand were ren­dered with max­i­mum dra­mat­ic ten­sion, despite the fact that case law is a nigh unread­able jum­ble of jar­gon, cita­tions, archa­ic dic­tion and syn­tax, etc… any­thing but brim­ming with cin­e­mat­ic poten­tial.

Do law stu­dents and legal schol­ars dis­agree with this assess­ment? It’s beside the point, many might say. The cen­turies-old web of case law—reinforcing, con­tra­dict­ing, over­turn­ing, cre­at­ing pat­terns and structures—is the very stuff the law is made of.

It’s a ref­er­en­tial tra­di­tion, and when most of the doc­u­ments are in the hands of only a few peo­ple, only those peo­ple under­stand why the law works the way it does. The rest of us are left to won­der why the legal sys­tem is so Byzan­tine and incom­pre­hen­si­ble. Real life rarely has the clar­i­ty of a sat­is­fy­ing court­room dra­ma.

Last year, The Har­vard Crim­son report­ed a seem­ing­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary shift in that dynam­ic, when Har­vard Law’s Caselaw Access Project “dig­i­tized more than 40 mil­lion pages of U.S. state, fed­er­al, and ter­ri­to­r­i­al case law doc­u­ments from the Law School library,” dat­ing back to 1658.  The Crim­son issued one caveat: the full data­base is acces­si­ble to the pub­lic, but “users are lim­it­ed to five hun­dred full case texts per day.” Plan your intense, scotch-soaked all-nighters accord­ing­ly.

Is this altru­ism, civic duty, a move in the right direc­tion of free­ing pub­licly fund­ed research for pub­lic use?  Sev­er­al Har­vard Law fac­ul­ty have said as much. “Case law is the prod­uct of pub­lic resources poured into our court sys­tem,” writes Pro­fes­sor I. Glenn Cohen. “It’s great that the pub­lic will now have bet­ter access to it.” It is indeed, Pro­fes­sor Christo­pher T. Bavitz says: “If we want to ensure that peo­ple have access to jus­tice, that means that we have to ensure that they have access to cas­es. The text of cas­es is the law.”

The law is not a set of abstract prin­ci­ples, the­o­ries, or rules, in oth­er words, but a series of his­tor­i­cal exam­ples, woven togeth­er into a social nar­ra­tive. Machines can ana­lyze data from The Caselaw Access Project far faster and more effi­cient­ly than any human, giv­ing us broad­er views of legal his­to­ry and prece­dent, and great­ly expand­ing pub­lic under­stand­ing of the sys­tem. Harvard’s Library Inno­va­tion Lab has itself already cre­at­ed sev­er­al apps for just this pur­pose.

There’s Cal­i­for­nia Word­clouds, which shows the most-used words in Cal­i­for­nia caselaw between 1852 and 2015, and Witch­craft in Caselaw, which does what it says, with an inter­ac­tive map of all appear­ances of witch­craft in cas­es across the coun­try. There’s “Fun Stuff” too, like a Caselaw Lim­er­ick Gen­er­a­tor, a visu­al data­base that ana­lyzes col­ors in case law, and “Gavel­fury,” which ana­lyzes “all instances of ‘!,’” giv­ing us gems like “Do you remem­ber if it was mur­der!” from Bowl­ing v. State, 229 Ark. 876 (Dec. 22, 1958).

One new graph­ing tool, His­tor­i­cal Trends, announced in June, makes it easy for users to “visu­al­ize word usage in court opin­ions over time,” writes the Library Inno­va­tion Lab. (Exam­ples include com­par­ing the “fre­quen­cy of ‘com­pen­sato­ry dam­ages’ and ‘puni­tive dam­ages’ in New York and Cal­i­for­nia” and com­par­ing “pri­va­cy” with “pub­lic­i­ty.”) Any­one can build their own data visu­al­iza­tion using their own search terms. (Learn how and get start­ed here.) Case law may nev­er be glam­orous, exact­ly, or fun to read, but it may be far more inter­est­ing, and empow­er­ing, than we imag­ine.

Be aware that the Caselaw Access Project could still find ways to restrict or mon­e­tize access, for a short time, at least. “The project was fund­ed part­ly through a part­ner­ship with Rav­el, a legal ana­lyt­ics start­up found­ed by two Stan­ford Law School stu­dents,” reports the Crim­son. The com­pa­ny “earned ‘some com­mer­cial rights’ through March 2024 to charge for greater access to files.” The start­up has issued no word on whether this will hap­pen. In the mean­time, pub­lic inter­est legal schol­ars may wish to do their own dig­ging through this trove of caselaw to bet­ter under­stand the public’s right to infor­ma­tion of all kinds.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bound by Law?: Free Com­ic Book Explains How Copy­right Com­pli­cates Art

Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy: A Free Course from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty

Har­vard Launch­es a Free Online Course to Pro­mote Reli­gious Tol­er­ance & Under­stand­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.