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Harvard Law Gives Public Free Access to Four Centuries of U.S. Court Cases

The Harvard Law School library at Langdell Hall is open to all Harvard ID holders normally, and only to Harvard law affiliates during exam periods.
The Harvard Law School library at Langdell Hall is open to all Harvard ID holders normally, and only to Harvard law affiliates during exam periods. By Grace Z. Li
By Laura C. Espinoza and Katherine S. Li, Contributing Writers

The Library Innovation Lab at Harvard Law School published a full collection of United States court cases dating from 1658 to 2018 on Monday as part of a years-long project to make case law more accessible.

The initiative, dubbed the Caselaw Access Project, digitized more than 40 million pages of U.S. state, federal, and territorial case law documents from the Law School library. Though basic information for all cases in the database is now publicly accessible, users are limited to five hundred full case texts per day. Harvard affiliates currently have unlimited access to all case texts.

Adam Ziegler, who directed the project, said his team worked on the Caselaw Access Project for more than six years.

“It started with the simple observation that there was a real need for ready access to court opinions,” Ziegler said.

The project was funded partly through a partnership with Ravel, a legal research and analytics startup founded by two Stanford Law School students. Ravel earned “some commercial rights” through March 2024 to charge for greater access to files, according to Ziegler. The company, however, has not publicly stated whether they plan to do so.

Representatives from Ravel did not respond to requests for comment.

Several Law School faculty members expressed their optimism about the project and its potential. Law School Professor I. Glenn Cohen called the project “a game changer,” and Law School Professor Christopher T. Bavitz said the initiative will bring about “enormous benefits” for teaching, research, and legal analysis.

“Case law is the product of public resources poured into our court system,” Cohen wrote in an email. “It’s great that the public will now have better access to it.”

The Caselaw Access Project will greatly reduce the cost of accessing historical court cases, according to Bavitz.

“If we want to ensure that people have access to justice, that means that we have to ensure that they have access to cases,” Bavitz said. “The text of cases is the law.”

Apart from cost, the new digital repository also makes it easier for programmers to efficiently access large sets of raw court case data. Researchers can now access text files that enable them to conduct large-scale computer processing, Ziegler said. He expects to see the public use the database to understand how courts influence one another and reveal disagreements between courts.

“The best lawyer can’t even read one percent [of all court cases in U.S. History],” Ziegler added. “But a computer can, and can do it efficiently.”

Legal experts, like Bavitz, are hopeful about future developments that can grow out of the Caselaw Access Project.

“It really invites others to come along and build new tools on top of that,” Bavitz added. “I think we're all excited to see what tools people build to tap into this stuff.”

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