Originally created 07/31/98

Take the World Wide Web to Court



WASHINGTON -- Everyone has his day in court. I had mine about 10 years ago -- an extremely unpleasant day that I'd like to forget. Perhaps the worst thing was the audience of strangers observing from the back seats of the courtroom as my various domestic secrets were entered into the permanent record.

There are people who attend divorce trials for entertainment, just as there are people who watched every minute of the O.J. Simpson and Menendez brothers trials on television or who wait outside U.S. District Court to see Linda Tripp et al. march in and out of the independent prosecutor's grand jury proceedings.

Courtrooms contain high drama as well as legal minutiae, and the Internet is well on its way to bringing them to your screen. As the cost of computer power declines and access to online information expands, courts and academic institutions are making legal documents available at no cost or low cost as a service to the public, as well as passing them on to the commercial databases such as Lexis and WestLaw.

For comprehensiveness and efficiency, the Web's legal databases still do not compare to the fee-based commercial services. Instead of a global search of all case law or legislation, a Web researcher has to discover and search individual databases by jurisdiction, publication or time frame as available on the Internet. It's one-stop shopping vs. point-and-click hunt-and-peck. And, although the body of legal information on the freely available Web is growing quickly, it's still hit or miss.

But, with those caveats in mind, there's a lot you can find. Here are some Web sites from my own bookmark list.

Let's start at the top, with the highest court of our nation. There's no home page for the Supreme Court yet, but there are troves of information on the Web for fans of the Supremes. A searchable database of all the court's written opinions since 1893 resides at FindLaw (see box for address)-which, with lots of links, is a good place to start for any law-related Web information.

Oyez Oyez Oyez at Northwestern University is a comprehensive site for links to Supreme Court materials, including biographies of past and current justices and RealAudio sound files of some oral arguments before the court.

For federal courts nationwide, the Federal Judiciary site from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts offers links to U.S. district and bankruptcy courts and the courts of appeal via a clickable Web map. If you follow the links, you may be surprised. For example, on finding the link for the Virginia Eastern Bankruptcy Court, I learned that case dockets are available -- on an experimental basis -- for free. I've been paying 60 cents per minute to dial up to the court's PACER system via modem.

At the home page of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, you can view cases filed via the court's electronic filing system, including scanned images of the exhibits in the cases. The Virtual Courthouse of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit offers a friendly welcome, the calendar of public arguments, information on access to the court, forms and even the menu in the courthouse cafeteria. But for the full text of the opinions from this court back to March 1995, visit Georgetown University Law Center.

The full text of 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals opinions (covering Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia) since January 1995 can be searched or downloaded from Emory University.

State court sites are multiplying on the Web. Visit the National Center for State Courts for a directory of state and local courts across the nation. The Virginia judicial system offers the text of about 18 months of opinions of the Supreme Court of Virginia and the Court of Appeals, as well as consumer information about the commonwealth's court system.

If you are interested in the history or architecture of courthouses, or you just like to visit, you're not alone on the Web. Lawrence Kestenbaum, a candidate for the Michigan House of Representatives in next week's primary, has a page of links to courthouse sites; he also produces the Political Graveyard, "the Web Site That Tells Where the Dead Politicians Are Buried," at the same address.

And for courtroom addicts, Court TV online offers the latest news on the hottest cases around the nation, currently featuring the cadet murder trial in Texas, with video (you'll need to download a video player), including documents, transcripts, evidence and news reports on the case.

At Court TV, archives of famous trials from the past are available, too, including the Unabomber, O.J., the nanny murder trial and Marv Albert's misadventures in Arlington, Va. Click there for the DNA test results.

Thankfully, there was no Web site to worry about on that special day of mine 10 years ago. But if you want to be sure of avoiding one, you'd better file those papers soon.

Here is a list of World Wide Web sites at and about courts of law.

FindLaw -- www.findlaw.com

Oyez Oyez Oyez -- oyez.nwu.edu

Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts -- www.uscourts.gov

Virginia Eastern Bankruptcy Court -- www.vaeb.uscourts.gov

U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York -- www.nysb.uscourts.gov

U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit -- www.cadc.uscourts.gov

D.C Court of Appeals Opinions from Georgetown University Law Center -- www.ll.georgetown.edu:80Fed-Ctcadc.html

4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinions from Emory University -- www.law.emory.edu/4circuit/index.html

National Center for State Courts -- www.ncsc.dni.us/court/sites/courts.htm

Virginia judicial system -- www.courts.state.va.us

Maryland judicial system -- www.courts.state.md.us

Lawrence Kestenbaum's courthouse and political graveyard -- www.potifos.com

Court TV online -- www.courttv.com

Margot Williams' e-mail address is williams@washpost.com.