google legal?

Recently came across the news (now somewhat dated) that Google has now incorporated some full-text legal decisions from the US into Google Scholar.

From the Official Google Blog:

Starting today, we’re enabling people everywhere to find and read full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts using Google Scholar. You can find these opinions by searching for cases (like Planned Parenthood v. Casey), or by topics (like desegregation) or other queries that you are interested in. For example, go to Google Scholar, click on the “Legal opinions and journals” radio button, and try the query separate but equal. Your search results will include links to cases familiar to many of us in the U.S. such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, which explore the acceptablity of “separate but equal” facilities for citizens at two different points in the history of the U.S. But your results will also include opinions from cases that you might be less familiar with, but which have played an important role.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the announcement seems to suggest less an emphasis on targeting lawyers as the primary audience, but rather the general public. In fact, in a recent ABA Journal article, Google’s representative even suggested that Google wouldn’t be of much value to lawyers:

Google, meanwhile, is not trying to compete with the likes of West, LexisNexis, Bloomberg, Fastcase or any other commercial legal research company, says lawyer Rick Klau, a project manager at Google who helped build the Scholar database.

“There is no attempt to slay anyone here,” Klau says. “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it useful. This was a collection of content that was not accessible and well-organized.” He says Google Scholar was designed to make the information accessible for ordinary citizens. The company has no current plans to do more with the information than what is already available.

Google’s database allows users to search its content against any words, concepts or citations and will pull up opinions related to the searcher’s query. The results are ranked by relevance. Citations in the opinions are hyperlinked to other opinions. The results also provide links to other Google databases, such as books and law reviews, to help searchers get context.

But Google Scholar does not provide any sort of system to check the validity of the case, nor does it offer any type of taxonomy of the case.

Klau goes so far as to question the value of Google Scholar to practicing lawyers: “The two primary for-pay services provide tremendous value to their users and help you better understand and consume information, like whether an opinion is still valid. Those are things that practitioners rely on and will continue to rely on.”

Despite Klau’s protestations, others in the legal information sector are watching Google. “You are always very conscious of what Google is doing because the company has immense resources available,” says Warwick of Thomson Reuters.

That same article also describes how LexisNexis and Westlaw, the two Microsofts of the legal information industry, will be implementing sweeping changes in their services. I imagine those changes were prompted less by Google’s foray into the legal information industry and more by the entrance of Bloomberg into the market, and the desire to capture a greater share of what seems to be a shrinking market.

In any event, Google isn’t really reinventing anything here but rather making it a bit more convenient to access and use – apparently all of this material had previously been available on various court and other web sites. Google’s value add was to consolidate it all and make it easier to search and use.

Too bad. It would have been interesting to see Google shake things up a bit in the legal information industry (or for that matter the information industry more generally). Then again, you never know…

Wikiality – Part II

There was some traffic on the ULC E-Comm Listserv (on which I surreptitiously lurk – and if you don’t know what it is and are interested in e-commerce law, highly recommended) about courts citing Wikipedia with a couple of links to some other stuff, including an article on Slaw as well as an article in the New York Times about the concerns raised by some regarding court decisions citing Wikipedia. Some excerpts and notes to expand on my previous post:

From the con side:

In a recent letter to The New York Law Journal, Kenneth H. Ryesky, a tax lawyer who teaches at Queens College and Yeshiva University, took exception to the practice, writing that “citation of an inherently unstable source such as Wikipedia can undermine the foundation not only of the judicial opinion in which Wikipedia is cited, but of the future briefs and judicial opinions which in turn use that judicial opinion as authority.”

This raises a good point that I didn’t mention in my previous post. I certainly think Wikipedia is fine to note certain things, but I really, definitely, positively, do not think that it should be cited as judicial authority. In my previous article I thought this was so self-evident I didn’t bother mentioning, but the quote above illustrates that it might not be all that clear. Court decisions, as most of you know, are written by judges who take into account the facts and apply the law to the facts of the case, along with other facts and information that may have a bearing on the case. The source of the law includes statutes and of course previously decided cases, which enunciate rules or principles that the court either applies, distinguishes based on the facts as being inapplicable, or, in some cases, overturns (for any number of reasons). Court decisions are not, of course, published on Wikipedia and are not subject to the collective editing process of Wikipedia, nor should they be. Rather, references to Wikipedia in court cases are to provide additional or ancillary context or facts to a case. They do not and should not derogate from principles of law that are set forth in court decisions. But, contrary to what Mr. Ryesky, Esq., indicates above, I don’t think referring to Wikipedia for context or facts will suddenly undermine the foundations of law, since the legal reasoning itself still will and must be based on sources of law, not facts and not context.

Hence the following end to the NTY article:

Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University Law School, saw this as crucial: “The most critical fact is public acceptance, including the litigants,” he said. “A judge should not use Wikipedia when the public is not prepared to accept it as authority.”

For now, Professor Gillers said, Wikipedia is best used for “soft facts” that are not central to the reasoning of a decision. All of which leads to the question, if a fact isn’t central to a judge’s ruling, why include it?

“Because you want your opinion to be readable,” said Professor Gillers. “You want to apply context. Judges will try to set the stage. There are background facts. You don’t have to include them. They are not determinitive. But they help the reader appreciate the context.”

He added, “The higher the court the more you want to do it. Why do judges cite Shakespeare or Kafka?”



Interesting post on the Wellington Financial Blog about “Wikiality” – the practice of taking stuff in Wikipedia as the truth, or, to quote: ““a reality where, if enough people agree with a notion, it becomes the truth.”

JN notes that Wikipedia has been cited by the courts, and this is reason for concern. A snippet:

The practice poses two problems:

  1. The references may be inaccurate; and
  2. Even if accurate, the references are subject to change at any point in the future, making it difficult for any future decisions to refer back to the original or understand the context in which it was made.

Given recent reports of Microsoft offering to pay individuals to make changes to certain Wikipedia articles in which they have a vested interest, the credibility of the site as a definitive reference source again comes into question.

A few of my colleagues at the firm also expressed bemusement when a recent case in Ontario (don’t have the citation, sorry) also cited Wikipedia.

I am quite a big fan of Wikipedia. It is, I think a rather useful and handy tool to refer to from time to time. Do I take it as the gospel? No. Would I use it if I were trying to concoct an antidote for a poison that was about to kill me? Probably not. Would I cite it in a legal research paper? Possibly. In fact, quite likely.

Although Wikipedia is by no means without its weaknesses, it also has its strengths. Sure, there is a possibility of inaccuracy. But then again, isn’t something less likely to have inaccuracies if it is reviewed (and edited) by more eyes (and more minds)? Isn’t it more likely that if there is a dispute about what is and isn’t correct, it will come to light, just like the Microsoft incident?

And what source, can it be said, is free of inaccuracies? Certainly not The New York Times. Although the Gray Lady is quick to point out that it was “deceived” by an errant reporter, it is less quick to reflect on the fact that it published fabricated stories. That of course is the clearest example, but history is rife with examples of inaccurate or misleading stories in the press. Less clear, of course, is media bias. And one only needs to refer to Manufacturing Consent. I don’t necessarily agree with all that book has to offer, but it certainly provides some food for thought.

What about scientific publications? Hmmm. Well. Again, truth is quite often relative. The clearest examples, are, of course, outright fabrication. Nonetheless, Dr. Hwang Woo-suk’s paper on producting the first cloned stem cell line was considered the truth for several years, until he was discredited. And more generally speaking, is it not true that, in the world of science, what is considered to be the truth is what most scientists believe to be true? Is that not the system of peer review? A great read on this topic is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (as an aside, its also the book that introduced the phrase “paradigm shift” into popular parlance). I won’t bore you with details, but suffice it to say that, at the end of the day, science, at least in concept, may not be that far from wikiality.

My point isn’t necessarily to skewer existing sources of “truth” but rather to point out that such sources aren’t necessarily more reliable or accurate, or less fallible, than something like Wikipedia.

And as for things changing? Make a copy.