Another question in my Legal Internet Trivia Challenge was, “Which court was the first to make its opinions available in electronic format?” Here, I messed up in the phrasing of the question. What I meant to ask was, “Which court was the first to make its opinions available in electronic format over the Internet?” After all, this was an Internet trivia challenge. Even before any court put its opinions on the Internet, some were publishing them in other electronic formats, such as CD-ROMs.

For example, a 1991 ABA Journal article described how Colorado’s courts had started circulating their opinions on CD-ROM “in an effort to cut down on the expense of online services.” (Back then, “online services” did not mean Internet services, but early versions of Westlaw and LexisNexis that you dialed into via a modem.)

Also, my question was directed at courts as publishers of their own cases, not third-party publishers. I believe the oldest computerized collection of court opinions was the Air Force FLITE database of Supreme Court decisions, which began operating in 1963 and included decisions back to 1937. The first court decisions on the Internet may have been via the Cleveland Free-Net, a community-access computer system that became accessible via the Internet in 1989. Tom Bruce of the Legal Information Institute tells me that he believes the Free-Net included decisions from the Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District.

So, with those provisos, as best as I can determine, the first courts to directly distribute their opinions via the Internet were two federal circuits, followed closely by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two weeks ago, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the nation had a lesson in how the Supreme Court releases its opinions to the public. It may surprise many to learn that nearly a quarter century ago, in December 1989, the Supreme Court announced the launch of Project Hermes, its first system for electroncially distributing its decisions to the public within moments after they are handed down. Writing in The New York Times on Dec. 19, 1989, Linda Greenhouse called it “a giant step into the computer age.”

By today’s standards, it was really more of a baby step. In fact, when the system launched in May 1990, the decisions were distributed to just a dozen or so legal publishers and news organizations, who paid some $500 a year for the privilege of receiving them. Those primary recipients then redistributed the decisions through their own networks. And, strictly speaking, the court was not distributing them via the Internet, but through a direct network. However, by 1991, the Government Printing Office was distributing the opinions through an Internet bulletin board system (BBS), and in 1993, the Legal Information Institute took advantage of the nascent World Wide Web to create the first hypertext front-end to the decisions.

Even before the Supreme Court began distributing its opinions electronically, at least two federal circuit courts were doing so via a system called Appellate Court Electronic Services (ACES). This system used an Internet BBS (remember, this was before the Web) to distribute the opinions to attorneys, news organizations, legal publishers and other interested parties. ACES was launched in 1989 with just the 4th and 9th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal participating. By 1994, all the federal circuits were participating in ACES, as were a handful of U.S. district and bankruptcy courts.

From what I can find, then, these two federal circuits were the first to directly distribute their opinions via the Internet. I would not be surprised to learn that there was a state court somewhere that beat them to it. I just have not been able to find any evidence of it.

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.