Google's massive size and repeatedly demonstrated ability to move into and dominate new areas of information and search suggest that any effort by it even to dip its toe into the ocean of the law should be taken seriously.
As such, as has been amply noted by many others, and as officially announced in its blog, Google's new case search should be examined as a free source of many years of federal and state appellate caselaw. To access it, go to Google Scholar, and select the "Legal Opinions and Journals" button, or just search, caselaw is now included.
Below I quickly address the new tool's coverage of recent cases; its relevancy ranking; potential use of the case hyperlinks; and pin cites.
Scope of Search
As pointed out by Carole Levitt of "Internet for Lawyers," Google has buried some information about the scope of the search on its Google Scholar Help page:
"Currently, Google Scholar allows you to search and read opinions for US state appellate and supreme court cases since 1950, US federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy courts since 1923 and US Supreme Court cases since 1791 (please check back periodically for updates to coverage information). In addition, it includes citations for cases cited by indexed opinions or journal articles which allows you to find influential cases (usually older or international) which are not yet online or publicly available."
I'm a Massachusetts lawyer, so of course today I assessed its recent coverage in an area I know something about, Massachusetts case law. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court archive allows free access to recent opinions: Google Scholar contains the Commonwealth v. Avila case issued September 15, 2009 (roughly two months ago) but not the Commonwealth v. Odgren case (available temporarily free from Westlaw here) issued October 15, 2009 or the Massachusetts Appeals Court case Sheriff of Suffolk County v. AFSCME COUNCIL 93, LOCAL 419 (temporarily here) issued October 1, 2009. Oddly Google Scholar knows about the Odgren case as a citation--perhaps more functionality will be unveiled about this aspect of the tool in future months. Similar treatment is found for the even more recent SJC slip opinions, that is, Google Scholar knows about the citation but not the case.
Relevancy and Case Significance
The commentators have noted that Google is not simply turning its regular algorithm loose on the text of legal opinions. Rather, the relevancy ranking clearly shows that some serious thought and attention has been paid to how the legal system works. My search for in personam jurisdiction produced results similarly impressive to those I had seen with Precydent. I would guess that Google tracks the number of citations in other courts to a given case and factors that into its algorithm.
I noticed that each case has a unique not-horribly-long URL. For instance, the URL for Cement-Lock LLC v. Gas Technology Institute, 523 F. Supp. 2d 827 (N.D. Ill. 2007) is:
The broad coverage and solidity of Google technology suggests that such hyperlinks may be an excellent tool in the kit of those who write in about legal issues in HTML-enabled text, such as legal bloggers and lawyers working with internal blogs and wikis. No login is needed to access the case (thanks Ernie the Attorney for pointing that out).
I've previously noted in my review of PreCydent that pin cites are really important for legal research and writing. Google Scholar cases indicate where the page breaks are in the original text.