We’re excited to see Google has unveiled a dramatic expansion of Google Scholar to include Supreme Court decisions going back to the 18th century, lower federal court decisions since the 1920s, and state Supreme Court and appellate decisions going back to the 1950s. They’ve done an impressive job with automated parsing of legal citations, transforming them into hyperlinks and allowing Google to do automated analysis of case similarity.

This type of project was precisely what we had in mind when some of us wrote “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” last year. The judiciary may be the foundation of a free society, but it’s not especially good at building websites or search engines. By making public records easily available for re-publications by third parties, the judiciary (and the other branches of government) can enable private parties to dramatically expand public access to public information.

In this case, the state and federal courts haven’t made it easy to download bulk data, so Google had to get the information from third parties. Google is a big company with significant resources at its disposal. But in an ideal world, it wouldn’t take the resources of a large company to get access to this kind of data. Of course, this is precisely the vision behind RECAP. We hope to build a free, public, and comprehensive repository of federal judicial records so that large companies like Google, small start-ups, and even non-profit organizations can get access to the data and build tools to do make these records more accessible and useful.

RECAP’s database is more limited than Google’s in some ways; we only store federal district court cases going back about 10 years. But it’s much more extensive in other respects; we have much more than just the final opinion in a case. We’d love to have third parties such as Google incorporate the data in RECAP into a tool like Google Scholar. But we’d be even happier if the judiciary itself took the lead, by freeing access to PACER and enabling bulk downloads. Google’s impressive new legal search tools show just how much value private parties can add when they build on public data.