"Nota Bene" means "note this well" or "take particular notice." We at the O'Quinn Law Library will be posting tips on legal research techniques and resources, developments in the world of legal information, happenings at the Law Library, and legal news reports that deserve your particular attention. We look forward to sharing our thoughts and findings and to hearing from you.

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-Spencer L. Simons, former Director, O'Quinn Law Library and Associate Professor of Law



Friday, September 30, 2011

SCOTUS Justice Search Tips for LexisNexis/Westlaw

With the new term of the Supreme Court of the United States just around the corner, here are some search tips for finding decisions authored by a particular justice.

When using lexis.com:

To find all opinions (of any type) authored by a particular justice, use the WRITTENBY segment in the U.S. Supreme Court Cases, Lawyers' Edition (GENFED;USLED) database: e.g., writtenby(scalia). To find all opinions of a particular type authored by a particular justice, use one of the following narrower segments:

• Use OPINIONBY to find "opinion[s] of the Court" (i.e. majority and plurality opinions) authored by a particular justice;

• Use CONCURBY to find concurring opinions (including "in part" or "in the judgment") authored by a particular justice;

• Use DISSENTBY to find dissenting opinions (including "in part") authored by a particular justice.

NOTE: There can be some overlap between the CONCURBY and DISSENTBY segments. In instances where a justice is concurring in part and dissenting in part, their name will appear in both segments. Also, although this post is about searching for opinions of US Supreme Court Justices, these segments can be used in any other caselaw databases to find opinions authored by a particular judge/justice in their relevant jurisdiction.

When using Westlaw:

With Westlaw, it's not as clean and easy. Westlaw's SCOTUS database, All U.S. Supreme Court Cases (SCT), offers similar fields to lexis.com's segments, but Westlaw's fields are actually broader, resulting in more mis-hits. For example, according to the Scope information for the SCT database, the JU field is supposed to contain the "Name of the judge writing the principal opinion." However, a search of ju(scalia) also retrieves some instances where he merely joined in the opinion of the Court. It also includes instances where he authored opinions dissenting from denials of certiorari, and although I can understand West's view that such opinions are the "principal" opinions, I cannot agree with that assessment and prefer LexisNexis's practice of labeling such opinions as dissents; calling a dissent "the principal opinion" is very ambiguous and can be confusing to new legal researchers.

But the problem goes further than that: Westlaw does not provide an easy way to retrieve only dissenting or concurring opinions authored by a particular justice. They do provide a few options that will help narrow down the results list, but they are not very precise. Here are your options:

• The CON field: This field does contain the names of "the judges who wrote the [concurring] opinions", but it also contains the text of those decisions as well. Accordingly, searching for con(scalia) will retrieve the concurring opinions he authored as well as all concurring opinions that merely mention him.

• The DIS field: This field contains the names of "the judges who wrote the [dissenting] opinions", but it also contains the text of those decisions as well. Accordingly, searching for dis(scalia) will retrieve the dissenting opinions he authored as well as all dissenting opinions that mention him.

• The SY field: This field contains the synopsis of the case, which is "[a] summary of the case prepared by West, a Thomson business, another publisher, or the court." Georgetown Law Library's Supreme Court Research Guide suggests using this field to retrieve dissents and/or concurrences from a particular author. For example, the search sy(scalia +s concur! dissent!) means you're searching the synopsis for any instance where the term "scalia" precedes, in the same sentence, either some form of "concur" or some form of "dissent". And this is a very good strategy since, most of the time, the SY field in the decisions retrieved will contain sentences such as "SCALIA , J., filed a concurring opinion." or "Justice Scalia, with whom Justice Thomas joined, filed a dissenting opinion." Unfortunately, it will also retrieve opinions where the particular justice merely joined in the concurring or dissenting opinion written by someone else, just as the JU field will retrieve "principal" opinions joined, but not authored by, the desired justice. This should be evident in the latter example above, where Justice Thomas joined the dissenting opinion of Justice Scalia's: Such an opinion would be retrieved by the search sy(thomas +s dissent!) even though the searcher is interested only in dissenting opinions authored by Justice Thomas.

The New Generation of Westlaw/LexisNexis

If you want to use WestlawNext rather than Westlaw, the same field searches will retrieve the same results if you limit the Jurisdiction to United States Supreme Court. Unfortunately, WestlawNext does not advertise this functionality, so those law students who have been introduced only to WestlawNext (as opposed to Westlaw) will never know such control exists.

As for Lexis Advance for Law Schools (LALS), although I've been assured segment searching will be retained once the product is fully rolled out, the current Beta version available to law schools does not allow any segment searching, nor do the post-search filters currenty allow the researcher to retrieve only opinions authored by a particular justice. In fact, in its current form, the original search cannot be limited to just US Supreme Court opinions; using the pre-search filters, one can limit the initial search to all federal cases, but that's it. Once the initial results are retrieved, the current post-search filters only allow the researcher to then limit the results to the Supreme Court, but not to a particular justice (although I've been assured that will be added) nor to particular types of opinions (majority, concurrence, dissent, etc.).

Have fun searching, and let's look forward to an interesting SCOTUS term.

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