With major cases coming in front of the Supreme Court, laws – and possible judicial changes to them – are often in the news. How laws change or are reapplied in the court system is a significant point of scholarly interest, and an exceptional database for exploring the law is Nexis Uni (formerly called Lexis Nexis Academic).
Nexis Uni contains a lot of different types of material – news articles, law reviews, even corporate information – but its main strength lies in legal studies. It is not as valuable for ‘code’ law (statutes passed by a legislature, which are typically straightforward, albeit very lengthy and archaically worded – amounting to lists of ‘don’t do this, or you will be fined or jailed this much’ for every conceivable crime or infraction). For that, government websites are typically the best, such as these for the U.S. Code and the Indiana Code. But Nexis Uni shines in research on ‘case’ law.
Case law, or precedent, is a greyer area where courts interpret laws to cover situations that aren’t explicitly detailed by the statutes, or which require consideration of extenuating circumstances. When laws contradict each other, or infringe on the Constitution, courts also determine what parts are valid. An example might be copyright law – while the legal ramifications of copyright are covered by statute in US Code Title 17 (such as length – the author’s lifetime plus 70 years), there are exemptions to the law allowed called ‘fair use’, and how these exemptions are applied may require a court to interpret.
In Nexis Uni, you can search by federal or state jurisdictions, and can search by keyword – or, if you are looking for a specific case, the names of the parties or the citation (for example, Marbury v. Madison, which established the validity of judicial review, is 5 U.S. 137; and Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the right to an attorney for defendants in state courts, is 372 U.S. 335). Courts typically respect decisions that have come before, creating more consistency and predictability in the legal system for anyone approaching a possible case. But not always – Scott v. Sandford (60 U.S. 393) and Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537) were both later overturned; their decisions regarded as racist misapplications of the law by later courts.
This type of reversal creates an important aspect to legal research – finding out whether a case you’ve already found is still valid law. To do this, click the link on the right labelled ‘Shepardize this document’ (Shepard’s Citations was a company subsequently purchased by Nexis Uni, that indexed cases by whenever they were mentioned in later rulings or decisions – allowing lawyers and legal scholars to easily discover the subsequent legislative history).
Subsequent decisions are labelled by symbol. The red stop sign is a warning that a major point of law used in this case has been subsequently ‘superseded’ and is no longer valid. A yellow warning sign indicates that there may be some change, and a green plus sign means the case or point of law is still valid. These may refer to the whole decision, or more likely, only a part of it, called a ‘point of law’ or ‘headnote’ in Nexis Uni. These are often also marked with red, yellow, and green symbols. For example, while the egregious racist ‘separate but equal’ elements of the aforementioned Plessy v. Ferguson case were overturned by Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483), some smaller parts of the decision stood. With this unique and powerful tool, scholars can quickly determine which cases are still relevant to current law.
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