Advanced Caselaw Search: Framing a Search

In this series of articles about making Fastcase work for you through your bar membership, we have so far looked at the general process of access through the bar web site and the uses of the opening screen, the Quick Caselaw Search box. We shall now move to the proper search function, which users may launch by clicking on Advanced Caselaw Search at the top of the left column of options on the welcome Quick Caselaw Search screen. On this screen the user must simply tell the database two things: what to look for and where to look. In this article, we'll look at how we tell the database what we want it to search for. In the following article we'll run an actual search and discuss ways of arranging the results to make them as responsive and accurate as possible. 

Let us start with a quick thought about methodology: these notes are intended for a wide audience of attorneys using Fastcase as a member benefit of many bar associations, some of them jurisdictional and some of them subject matter. These various bar packages offer sometimes different content packages. In order to make this article as useful as possible, I'll pick a general federal case search. What I do in the next article with this general federal appellate search, you can do within your particular jurisdictions, whether searching for "allowable rate of interest" in Missouri or “sentencing and mitigation” in Maryland or “patent and obvious and registration” in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. I short, we'll use the mutatis mutandis approach: the search we run now will demonstrate principles and methods that you will be able to import into your own research projects. 

Here is what the advanced caselaw search page looks like. In particular, note the content box and the jurisdictional buttons. 

So how do we tell the database what to look for? We use search terms that cover the subject matter and that are the terms likely to have been used by the court. It matters how we express these terms, and the search system that Fastcase (and virtually all other databases you will search, legal and non-legal) uses is called Boolean, after George Boole, a nineteenth century British mathematician and logician. There is no reason to be intimidated by a fancy term like “Boolean searching”. Immediately below the box for search terms you will find a collection of rules and hints for Boolean searching, with some further advice offered in this entry from the Fastcase blog: http://www.fastcase.com/tip-learn-to-use-boolean-operators/. Let me note quickly just a few of the most common and useful Boolean choices you will have to make: 

  • Do you want an and or an or? The default connector on Fastcase is and. Thus a search for adoption parent consent will yield cases containing all three of those words. If you want cases containing any one of those words, you must specify: adoption or parent or consent. 
  • Do you want a word or a phrase? If you want cases that contain the words summary and judgment, you need only search for summary judgment. If, however, you want the term summary judgment as a phrase, you can specify that choice by using quotation mark to search for "summary judgment" instead. Using the quotation marks will give you only that exact phrase in your results. 
  • Are you not sure how the courts may have said something? You can tell the database to search for options. To give an example, you have a client who underwent a spontaneous search of his car trunk during a traffic stop. How do the courts treat these matters? Have they set down conditions for consent or exigent circumstances or intrusiveness or probable cause that would shed light on the propriety of the search? It's an easy enough search: warrantless search trunk car. Wait, you say: what if the judge says not car but automobile? Do I run the risk of missing cases or having to run duplicative searches? There is a way, using parentheses, that you can tell the database to search for alternatives even within an and search. If you type into the terms box warrantless search trunk (car or automobile), your results list will give you cases containing the words warrantless, search, trunk and either car or automobile. This is the sort of flexibility that makes your research time much more productive and efficient. 
  • But what if you know what words the judge will have used in the decision but not the precise order in which they will be arranged? Is the judge likely to have said standard of comparative evidence or comparative standard of evidence? You can tell the database to search for and report back on proximities. A search for (comparative w/3 evidence) will bring back instances in which comparative occurs within three words of evidence, thus bringing to your list both standard of comparative evidence and comparative standard of evidence.