In a blow to West Publishing's near-monopoly on court records, the Oklahoma Supreme Court announced today that it will make its entire history of opinions available on the Net for free in citable form.
Other courts have published their decisions in free, searchable databases, but the Oklahoma Supreme Court is the first to be published in a form that serves as an alternative to costly private databases.
The legal database uses a public domain citation system--a cost-free system for referring to specific portions of a decision in a legal document. Developed by the American Bar Association (ABA) and the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), the copyright-free citation system will be accepted in briefs beginning May 1. The database also converts the ABA/AALL citation, for free, into West's format, which the court continues to require.
As a result, lawyers and citizens may now search and cite Oklahoma Supreme Court decisions without paying any fees to the Minneapolis-based West. "I'm sure this is causing some groans in Minneapolis today," said Kevin Kennedy, MIS director for the Supreme Court of Oklahoma.
The database is still under construction, but Kennedy said he expects records extending back to the early 1930s to be available by the end of the summer. Eventually, all decisions back to 1890, including Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory decisions, will be online, Kennedy added.
West claims copyright in the citation system most commonly used in court documents, which has given them a virtual lock on legal publishing both online and off. To date, U.S. courts have upheld the publishing company's copyright. However, many of the judges who have allowed West's near-monopoly to stand have come under scrutiny for accepting favors, trips, and cash from the company. West and the judges maintain nothing illegal has transpired.
Under pressure from the Consumer Project on Technology and other consumer groups, the U.S. judiciary is currently considering whether to adopt the ABA/AALL public domain citation system for federal court documents. Such a move would effectively break West's hold on databases of court decisions, which the groups say are public documents that should be accessible in citable form for free.
West also publishes interpretations and summaries of decisions and other aids for lawyers and judges that would not be affected by such a move.