How to Research Early Colorado Case Law

Here is a tip for how to research early Colorado case law.  All that is needed is: 1. internet access; and 2. a Google account.  While it is not necessary, The Bluebook – A Uniform System of Citation can be very helpful in determining which print reporters to search.

Since I have graduated law school, there have been a few times where I have read cases and there are citations to cases from the 19th and even 18th centuries.  My problem is I was not able to access these cases to read because I could not find them anywhere.  I do not use Lexis or Westlaw (and even when I did, those databases sometimes had omissions for early case law).  A simple search into the major search engines did not return the text of the decision either.  State supreme court cases are generally only available on the internet (sites without a paywall) from the 1950s and on.

When presented with this situation I turned my search to Google Books.  Google works with several of the largest libraries in the world (including many of the top law libraries) to digitize books that are in the public domain.  My idea was to search through case law reporters that are now in the public domain and digitized by Google.  Because with any luck, I would be able to find the case published in the reporter.

I will walk through this tutorial with the example case Salomon v. Webster, 4 Colo. 353 (1878).   This court case is heard by the Colorado Supreme Court only two years after Colorado is granted statehood to the union.  This is going pretty far back.

19th Century Colorado Case Law
Citation to 19th Century Colorado Case Law

Step 1: Determine Possible Reporters

Chances are if you find a case you would like to research, you know the case citation.  The citation is very important.  The citation provides important information in tracking down the correct reporter.

You might be asking yourself, “this is irrelevant for me, I already know the reporter from the case citation.”  And you may be right.  However, from my experience some state reporters are not available on Google Books, or I am just unable to find them.  If the state reporters are not available, then the regional reporters are the next best bet.

In case you do not have a BlueBook (for legal citations), here is a list of regional reporters:

Reporter NameStatesFirst Published
Atlantic ReporterConnecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont1885
North Eastern ReporterIllinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio1885
North Western ReporterIowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin1879
Pacific ReporterAlaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming1883
South Eastern ReporterGeorgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia1887
South Western ReporterArkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas1886
Southern ReporterAlabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi1887

After the possible reporters are determined then the search can start.

Note: the reason why determining the reporter is important is because many of these digital scans are not searchable.  In other words, many times you cannot type the name of the case into Google Books and find the book.

Using Google’s Book Search

Here are a few tips for searching Google Books to make your search quicker and more efficient.

1. Search through public domain books.  To do this after putting in your search term and clicking search, then click on ‘Search Tools’ and select ‘Free Google Ebooks.’  These are books in the public domain, which are freely available because generally the copyright has lapsed.  See the below picture for a screenshot.

Google Books - Public Domain

2. Search by date.  When the date is known for the case, it is helpful to narrow the search by date.  A broad way of accomplishing this is to restrict the search to a specific century.  This is a broad brushstroke type of restriction of the search criteria.  It narrows the search while leaving potentially responsive results listed.

Google Book Search by Century

Because there is even a more narrow option for searching by date.  In this search, months and years can even be specified allowing a searcher to drill down to a select set of books.

From my experience using this feature, this can be imprecise.  For some reason, Google can exclude responsive results that fall within the selected date range.  Google, usually has spot on search results for most things, but I have found searching for these old case reporters to be hit or miss.  Just be forewarned.

Google Books Search by Date

Tables of Contents and Index

Before the book is downloaded, check to make sure the case is in this particular volume.  The two easiest ways to do this are to check the Table of Contents located in the front and the Index located in the back of the book.

Usually cases are listed in alphabetical order, making them easy to find.  If the reporter covers multiple states, such as the case of the regional reporters, there will often times be designation of which state the case is from.

Downloading Books

The books can be downloaded as plain text, .pdf, and .epub formats.

The plain text option is searchable by page.  But it does not appear that it can be downloaded in this format — it just can be read on the webpage.

Another option is .pdf format.  This is my preferred choice.  Even though the .pdf files are often times rather large (usually between 50-100mb a piece), the print is the same as the original book and .pdf files look the same regardless of the device it is viewed on (ensuring pagination will stay consistent).

The last option is .epub format.  This is a good open source format, and most .epub readers allow for highlighting, bookmarking, etc.  These options are not available in .pdf readers.  However, the pagination in a .epub format can change depending on how it is viewed.  For example, when viewing .epub books on my Ipad the text is forced to fit the size of device.  So when I rotate my Ipad, the pagination changes.  This can be difficult to determine a citation.

First page of the case Salmon v. Webster
First page of the case Salmon v. Webster, 4 Colo. 353 (1878).

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