Linking to American Case Law through HeinOnline (Tip of the Week)

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By Ken Fox

I assume there will come a time when every correctly-formatted citation in every electronic document will have a hyperlink to its source (and maybe even a further future time when none of the links go to paywalls and secure sites, but let’s not get too crazy).

Currently, whether online legal information contains links to case law, legislative documents, or cited commentary is a very hit-or-miss prospect, with myriad contingencies and exceptions. As researchers, we can imagine the destination, but we cannot quite see it. We are as children in the back seat, forever asking the genies who drive our technical innovation, are we there yet?

No, we are not there yet.

But HeinOnline has recently taken another significant step forward. Recently, Hein added Fastcase to their online offerings. Although some features (including searchability by case name or keyword) are only available to Fastcase subscribers, it appears that the case law coverage is fairly comprehensive at federal and state levels. These cases can be accessed in HeinOnline by searching the citation through the Fastcase tab, and also, the point of this post, they can be accessed directly from Hein’s vast online journal collection.

To try out this new service, go to HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library, and access any major American law review, the Alabama Law Review, for instance. Select an issue, Volume 65 if you want to follow along, and an article, say the one written by Fletcher on Standing beginning at page 277. If you scroll to the bottom of the first page, you will see four footnotes with blue-shaded citations. These are cross-cites to other articles in the journal library. Go ahead to page 279, and note again that there are footnotes with blue-shaded citations. But this time they are case law references. Click on a cite, the first one if you please, and the 1969 decision of the Eighth Circuit Appeals court, with headnote, comes up in a new window. In the case law document, flip ahead to page 151, and further notice that the cases cited therein are also blue-shaded and clickable.

Surely this is a significant step forward in the journey toward a fully linked world, but one that also displays some of the difficulties in the process. The linking is automated – the software is able to recognize citation formats and locate the referenced document in the system. So citations that are incorrectly formatted, or incorrectly rendered in the OCR (Optical Character Recognition) process of creating the digital texts from their print sources, will not be linked. These errors seem to be minimal.

A more widespread (and annoying) problem is in evidence on page 281. Note 20 refers to a case mentioned on the previous page, and uses an obsolete abbreviation (Id, short for Idem, meaning “the same – I had to look that up) to refer you to page 618 of a document noted on page 280 of the present article. If you are reading page 281, and want to track down that reference, you need to first look down to the footnote, then follow the archaic, print-based noting system to the previous page’s footer, and only then link to the document. So three links where a digital-age researcher would prefer one. And it gets worse – some print footnote directions (Ibid, Op.cit) may refer you back several pages, or to a different chapter, and sometimes don’t even have page references, meaning you have to click around your online document looking for the hyperlink.

Such carry-overs from the print world will be with us for a while, I’m afraid. It would be too much to ask the publishers to hire enough elves to manually go through thousands of articles and add embedded hyperlinks to every reference. Far more difficult to explain is why new issues of many online law journals still use primitive bookish footnotes rather than embedded hyperlinks, or why they don’t at least copy and paste the citation onto the new page’s footnotes rather than using ridiculous, anachronous, time-wasting Latin cross-references.

But I digress.

The point is that we can now link from Hein’s vast collection of online legal journals to a deep database of American case law. Bumps in the road? Oh yes – but kids, we’re on our way!


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