Searching Google Scholar

There are three ways to search case law using Google Scholar. To use any of the three methods, first select the Case law (radio button under the search box). Three pre-filtering options will then appear—a Federal Courts radio button, a radio button for the state you are in (or the jurisdiction you have saved in a previous search), and a Select courts link (see Figure 6.1).

3-1 Google Scholar legal documents
Figure 6.1 Google Scholar’s Case Law Search

After you have selected Case law, you can search in one of three ways:

  1. Enter your search terms directly into the search box, which will search all jurisdictions;
  2. Enter your search terms into the Advanced search feature, which we will explain below; or
  3. Pre-filter your search by selecting certain courts to search, such as Federal courts or Illinois courts, or by using the Select courts link, as in Figure 6.1.

If you use the first or second methods (and enter your search terms now), you may still want to filter the results by court or other criteria afterward. We will discuss how to do this below.

If you click Select courts (see Figure 6.1), a screen containing all the courts Google Scholar covers will appear. You can then use the check boxes to choose any combination of courts to search (see Figure 6.2).

3-2 Google Scholar jurisdiction selection
Figure 6.2 Google Scholar’s List of Courts

For example, for a customized all federal courts opinions search, you would click the Select all link just to the right of the Federal courts heading to select all federal courts. This will include the U.S. Supreme Court, all federal appellate courts, the 1st Circuit Appeals and District Courts (through the 11th and D.C.), the Federal Circuit, the Tax Courts and Board of Tax Appeals, Bankruptcy Courts, and so on. Or, you could search one federal court or multiple (instead of all) federal courts. You could also mix and match federal and state courts.

For a customized all state court opinions search, you would click the Select all link beside the State courts heading. To search only the state courts of Nebraska, on the other hand, click the Clear all link beside the State courts heading (as well as the one beside Federal courts, if you had selected any) and then check the box next to Nebraska. If you only want the Nebraska Supreme Court but not the Nebraska Court of Appeals, simply click the Court of Appeals box to uncheck it. (This will also uncheck the main Nebraska box.) When you are finished making your court selections, click Done to close the courts screen.

When you click the Select courts link to use the check boxes to select jurisdictions before entering a search (Figure 6.2), clicking Done takes you to a screen with a single Google Scholar search box and the instructions: Please enter a query in the search box above (see Figure 6.3). If you wish to use the Advanced search feature at this point (which we recommend), you may click the small arrow to the right of the My Citations button, as shown in Figure 6.3. A drop-down menu will appear and you can select Advanced search. (My Citations is a recently added feature that helps authors track citations to their own publications.)

3-2a Google Scholar after clicking DONE
Figure 6.3 Query in Google Scholar

You can also access the Advanced search from Google Scholar’s home page (in one of two ways, depending on your browser). Most users can access the Advanced search option by clicking a small downward-facing arrow in the right side of the search box. This arrow does not always appear, however, and some users may need to access the feature by clicking an Advanced search link at the top of the Google Scholar home page. Both options are illustrated above. Regardless of how you access the Advanced search, the menu will look the same, as illustrated in Figure 6.4. Before selecting the Advanced search, be sure you have changed the Articles default to Case law if you want to search case law.

3-3 Google Scholar Advance Search BOTH options
Figure 6.4 Access Google Scholar’s Advance Search

Google frequently updates its features, and one of these recent updates includes the removal of the separate Advanced search page with four sections, which was known as the “old venerable” look. Researchers must now use the “modern” version which essentially consists of a pop-up box containing two of the four sections that had been available with the venerable look. Despite its simplified format, however, you can still create better and more targeted searches with the Advanced search than without it.

Searching Google Scholar is similar to searching as far as Boolean, keyword, and phrase searching are concerned, but proximity searching does not seem to work all the time. Although there are some Google Scholar-specific search tips, which explain how to use the Advanced Search menu, they focus primarily on how to search for articles. To compensate for Google’s lack of documentation about how to search the case law portion of Google Scholar and its Advanced search, we have run a number of test searches to offer searchers some guidance.

The Google Scholar Advanced search menu (see Figure 6.5) is labeled Find Articles, but it should be labeled “Find Articles and Opinions” because this is where researchers enter words and phrases to also search Google Scholar’s opinions database. The first four search boxes in this section are similar to the Advanced Search page, but there are some differences, such as the the drop-down menu labeled where my words occur. You can use this drop-down menu to select either in the title of the article (this should really be labeled “in the party names of the case”, such as roe wade to search for Roe v. Wade) or anywhere in the article (this should really be labeled “anywhere in the case”).

3-4 Google Scholar Advance Search box w BOXES
FIgure 6.5 Google Scholar’s Advanced Search Menu

The Find articles section provides keyword/Boolean connector field boxes for you to enter your search terms into and a phrase field box:

  • With all of the words (This is the AND Boolean connector field, so all words entered here will appear in your search results.)
  • With the exact phrase (All of your search results must include this exact phrase. If you enter only one phrase into this field, there is no need to surround the phrase with quotation marks. However, if you enter more than one phrase, each will require quotation marks.)
  • With at least one of the words (This is the OR Boolean connector field, so at least one of the words entered will be included in the search results.)
  • Without the words (This is the NOT Boolean connector field so all words or phrases entered into this field will be excluded in the search results.)

In addition, these fields allow you to create searches that are unique to opinions. For example, to force a search by citation, enter the citation (in Bluebook style) into the exact phrase search box. Even though a case citation is not an “article,” the results will include cases.

To force a case search by party name, first limit the results to a specific court (e.g., the U.S. Supreme Court) if you know which court decided the case. Next, enter the party names (e.g., Roe v. Wade) into the exact phrase search box, making sure to use v. and not versus or vs. Finally, from the where my words occur drop-down menu, select in the title of the article. This search brought back one opinion. It did not bring back any articles because choosing a court eliminates articles in the search results (see Figure 6.6).

3-7 Google Scholar roe v wade
Figure 6.6 Google Scholar’s Case Search by Party Results

If you wanted to research how specific federal and state courts have cited to Roe v. Wade, you would first select the courts you want to search from the Select courts page. Then enter the party names as a phrase (e.g., Roe v. Wade) into the with the exact phrase search box under Find articles. From the where my words occur drop-down menu, select anywhere in the article to bring back cases that include the phrase “Roe v. Wade” anywhere in the opinion and not just in the case title, (unlike the previous search). This should return a list of cases that have cited to your case. The preceding techniques are also useful for the party name cite checking technique).

The remainder of the Advanced search box provides search fields for Author, Publication, and Date. The label Judge could be substituted for the Author label because this is where a judge’s name can be entered when researching opinions. Test searches indicate that this field does not necessarily return opinions (or concurrences or dissents) authored by the judge searched, however. Any case in which the judge’s name appears (i.e., if he or she heard the case, but did not author the opinion) can appear in the search results.

You can try to force a search to return a judge as Author. If you want only cases in which a specified U.S. Supreme Court Justice delivered the opinion, for example, you would first select that court and then add the justice’s name and the word “delivered” into the search box labeled Find articles with all of the words. For other jurisdictions—Arizona, for example—you can try with the exact phrase, using a search such as opinion Eckerstrom, if you wanted opinions written by Eckerstrom. This is very hit or miss, however. It’s possible that a result (or results) could include cases in which someone else delivered the opinion but the specified judge was mentioned regarding his or her delivery of another opinion cited to in the case you are viewing. Or it could miss relevant opinions altogether if the spacing or punctuation of your search phrase is off, or if the judge co-authored an opinion and his or her name is not the next word after Opinion.

You may also use the Advanced search box to search for cases published in a particular reporter by using the Return articles published in field. Test searches indicate that when you restrict your search to case law, the Return articles published in field allows you to search for the abbreviation of the various case reporters—e.g., A.2d, P.3d, NY 2d, and so on. (Searches in the Return articles published in field for words such as reports or supreme court retrieve no results; only the reporter’s abbreviation will work.) So for example, if you were searching for Smith v. Jones and only knew that the case was published in the Atlantic Reporter, you could still search for Smith v. Jones in the exact phrase box and enter A.2d, (or A.3d, etc.) in the Return articles published in field.

The Collections and Legal opinions and journals sections that were available on the “old venerable” page, which allowed you to search law journals and cases together, have been removed and can no longer be accessed. However, a legal researcher can still approximate this function with Google Scholar’s post-search filters, which we will now describe.

When beginning your research, always be sure to select the Case law radio button on the main Google Scholar page. Doing so will help ensure that your search results are within the legal field, although this feature is not infallible. (Unfortunately for researchers in other disciplines, law is now the only subject—or “collection”—for which Google even attempts to pre-filter search results in this way.)

Search Results in Google Scholar

Once you have selected which courts to search and entered your search terms, you will receive the list of results, much like any other list of search results. However, Google Scholar now provides search result filtering options for legal document searches, and you can use these to refine your research even more. You will find the filtering options in a sidebar on the left side of the search results page. (See Figure 6.7.)

3-5 Google Scholar search results sidebar BRACKETS
Figure 6.7 Google Scholar’s Filtering Options

We will discuss the filters from top to bottom as they appear on the search results page. To switch between cases and journal articles that contain your search terms, click the Articles and Case law links at the top of the sidebar. Clicking these links will refresh your results list to show the relevant type of documents.

Although you may have already selected the jurisdictions you wished to search by before you reached this page, you can now adjust them while retaining your search terms. The court links are the same ones that appeared on the original Google Scholar search page, but you can click them here to see your search results in different courts.

The next two filters are for date. The first one allows you to restrict the dates of the documents that you are viewing. You may want to find more recent cases (or journal articles), and the filters allow you to select Any time, various dates in recent years, or your own custom date range. If you click the Custom range link, two boxes will appear beneath the link. You enter the four-digit beginning and ending years of the dates you wish to include in your search results and then click the Search button that appears below the two boxes. The next filtering option allows you to sort your search results by date, with the newest items appearing first.

The next link in the list of filtering options is include citations. As mentioned above, Google will search cases that include your search terms but to which it (and you) may not have full-text access. If you only want to see search results that inlcude the full text of cases, then you will want to uncheck the box next to include citations. If you have other sources for viewing case law, however, it might be a good idea to leave this option checked, in case there are citations to relevant cases that you can access elsewhere.

The final item in the list is not a filtering option, but we will discuss it here because it is a useful feature that Google has added recently. Create alert allows researchers to receive regular e-mail alerts about cases on any chosen topic emanating from any chosen court. If your search included articles, legal journals, or patents, those would be included in your alert results. You can also set up alerts using a citation or keywords, such as a party, judge, or attorney name. The alert defaults to your current search, but you can revise the alert by typing in other keywords/phrases and selecting up to ten or up to twenty results at a time (see Figure 6.8). You do not have to have a Google account to set up an alert, although if you don’t, Google may require you to click a verification link in order to begin receiving alerts.

3-6 Google Scholar alerts
Figure 6.8 Google Scholar’s Create an Alert

Once you have executed a search and refined your results, you will begin reviewing the cases you have found. Figure 6.9 shows what you will see when you click a search result link to view a full-text opinion with Google Scholar.

3-8 Google Scholar case view
Figure 6.9 Google Scholar’s Full-Text Option

Keywords are automatically highlighted in pale yellow, but you can remove the highlighting by clicking the small X in the upper right corner of the screen. Page numbers in the left-hand margin and throughout the text of the opinion correspond to the pages in the printed reporter (usually the official reporter), as shown in the Federal Reporter in Figure 6.9. The upper left corner of the screen contains three links—Read, How cited, and Search. The Read link is inactive on this screen because you are already reading the case. Clicking How cited will show other cases that cited this case and can help you conduct a rudimentary citation check of your case. To return to the list of search results, click the Search link.

Google provides this disclaimer about using its case law database: “Legal opinions in Google Scholar are provided for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as a substitute for legal advice from a licensed lawyer. Google does not warrant that the information is complete or accurate. Disclaimers like this can even be found at official courts’ websites where they are providing a database of their own legal opinions.

As with any case law research, it’s imperative that you determine that you are using cases that have not been overruled or reversed by using the citation features at Google Scholar; or by conducting a citation check at a pay database such as KeyCite, Shepard’s, or Casemaker; or by using free alternatives. In addition, you should always run a keyword search by party name to double check Google’s and all other free/low cost databases’ citations.

Free and Low Cost Legal Research Resources
This post was adapted from the Law Practice Division’s publication Internet Legal Research on a BudgetIn this book, explore how you can conduct legal research without breaking the bank. Authors Carole Levitt and Judy Davis share the top websites, apps, blogs, Twitter feeds, and crowd-sourced resources that will save you time, money, and frustration.

Learn More
Image credit:  Twin Design /

Check Also

client service

Author Spotlight: The Law Firm Client Service Interview Playbook

A Q&A with the authors about their step-by-step guide to incorporating client service interviews into your firm's client relationship management strategy.