New tool by Harvard Law lets people explore language usage in caselaw

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Parsing 6.7 million federal and state cases and 12 billion words, a new tool allows the public to explore the use of language over 360 years of caselaw.

Released Wednesday, “Historical Trends” was built by the Harvard Law School Library Innovation Lab and is free to use.

“I think it’s a good example of a research tool that we can offer that the commercial providers have never been inclined to explore,” says Adam Ziegler, director of the Harvard Law School Library Innovation Lab.

The tool allows a user to explore the use of language in caselaw dating back to the colonial period. A user can track the historical utilization of a word like “privacy,” which was fairly dormant during the 19th and early 20th centuries before receiving much more attention in the 1950s and 1960s. Or, a comparison can be made to see which is more commonly referred to in litigation, such as Harvard or Yale. (Turns out, it’s Yale by a mile.)

The tool can also visualize the use of a word across various states, as explained in a blog post by Kelly Fitzpatrick, a research associate at the Library Innovation Lab. For example, Nevada is currently leading the country in cases mentioning the Fifth Amendment, while Iowa has seen a recent uptick in Ninth Amendment mentions, for some reason.

The tool is plugged into the repository of cases released last fall as the Caselaw Access Project. Outside of the Library of Congress, it is the most comprehensive database of its kind—totaling 200 terabytes of information.



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