The Westlaw tax

One of the benefits of working at a law school is getting access to WestLaw and Lexis databases. These Goliaths of the database world aim to own and index everything legal. They do this in a number of ways but one in particular has always galled me. Through various models they support publishing reporters and other forums for publishing decisions in state and federal cases. In turn they get to keep the information behind firewalls that keep non-paying customers out and make many important legal documents unavailable to lay persons and those with a casual interest in studying the law who are not members of the esteemed profession.

Nevada for example publishes advance decisions on it's website but only for 90-days and they are not documents of record. The site notes "this information is prepared as an informational service only and should not be relied upon as an official record of action. For official records, please refer to the printed version of the appropriate official publication which may be obtained from the Clerk of the Supreme Court of Nevada." Amazingly the site doesn't even link to the page for ordering Nevada Reports which is the official record cryptically mentioned on the advance decisions page.

In the end a document that summarizes the law of the land, produced by the tax-funded judicial system produces a document that, although available online for a period of time, is ultimately only available in the long term for those willing to pay for it in either book form or through one of the database vendors. Legal professionals have little choice but to subscribe and most do so. It is the private party who wants to do a little research in Ely or Panaca who is left out.