November 30, 2009
More on Google Legal Research
I'd like to add a few thoughts to Victoria Szymczak's post last Wednesday, CSI: Google Scholar. I did something similar with a family law issue using Illinois case law. Family law is mostly governed by statute with a rich collection of case law that interprets it. I think the more direct approach would be to find the governing law in a copy of the annotated statutes and examine the notes of decisions. However, starting by searching case law directly is not a "wrong" approach to a family law problem.
The example I used in my test was an analysis of whether non-marital property acquired before a marriage is converted into marital property when used to purchase a home held in joint tenancy by the parties during the marriage. I chose this problem because I had researched this issue in the past and because it offered a broader perspective on the results Google would return. There are general principles that govern the status of non-marital property (bank accounts, stock, a professional practice, for example) and there is the application to the specific type of property, a home.
I started with broad terms, "illinois, non-Marital, property, transmute" entered as a standard Google search. The first case that came up was In re Marriage of Smith, cited in the result list with it's official Illinois citation along with the Northeastern Reporter citation. The text of the case was star paged to the Illinois pagination. I'll note some inconsistencies here as other cases from Illinois appear in their Northeastern Reporter version, and that cases appearing within the coverage of the database were not hyperlinked to text. It is hard to figure out how Google decides to link to other materials. Sometimes it is to cases with one citation, sometimes not. Similar observations appear when cases have parallel citations. I also note that the search results for the same terms are different when placed in a different order. The same cases mainly showed up, albeit in a different order. The results variation became more pronounced further down, even on the first page. Put Illinois between non-marital and property in the search and the results are also different.
The Smith case is a significant case on issue of transmutation of non-marital property in Illinois, though it dates from 1981. The general results list from Illinois and the how cited tended to cases from the 1980s. This was no surprise in one sense as the marriage statutes were completely re-written in the 1970s with the bulk of litigation on the meaning taking place about that time. At the same time, an examination of the annotated code showed relevant cases through the present. Litigation did not stop in 1989. More on this in a moment. Smith did cite the appropriate section of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, alerting a researcher to the fact that a statute existed. No links to any version of the online code at the Illinois General Assembly's web site, though I didn't expect any. The Illinois statutory compilation was completely renumbered and renamed in 1992, so a researcher would have to know that to find a current version of the text from a free source.
With these cases and a clue as to what else existed I went to the annotated statutes at Westlaw and found notes of decisions that identified the standards of transmutation, that there was a rebuttable presumption of transmutation, and the evidentiary standards for overcoming the presumption. I could conceivably use Google to ferret out this information, but I suspect it would take a bit of time to do so.
So, what does this all mean in terms of the impact of Google Legal? I would suggest that it's substantial enough to identify relevant materials to a problem if it's conducive to case research. As any savvy researcher would, take that information in Google and develop it using other sources. Some of these may be available on the web for free, which is a nice bonus. Anyone could use a print copy of the annotated Illinois Compiled Statutes in a law library to find the other law applicable to the problem. That would be a more efficient strategy than simply sticking with Google to locate the complete answer. Anyone with pay access to Lexis and Westlaw may want to start here if for no other reason to get an overview of the case law and develop relevant search terms. For example, using the term "convert" rather than transmute brings up vastly different results in Google Legal. Google would be a good place to try out alternative terms before doing a contextual search in Lexis and Westlaw.
One last point is in working through the problem, I accidentally hit web search rather than opening a new tab. In essence, I searched general Google for the same terms. The fourth result was a DuPage County Bar Association Brief on Commingling and Transmutation of property under Illinois marital law. It gave a broad overview of the legal landscape and acknowledged the Smith case as a starting point, though it did not go into enough detail to solve a research problem. This process is another example of how information is interrelated but no one source will actually provide the answer. Google is a source, but not the source. [MG]
Hey - did google contact you to ask you more about your test? They were interested in my blog post and wanted to know why the lead cases Google threw up first were not on point. Just wondering how closely they are monitoring comments...
Posted by: vicki | Dec 1, 2009 12:11:53 AM