Have you ever had to research a broad topic like whether a search is lawful under the Fourth Amendment or whether an employee is an independent contractor? Although this kind of research question seems as if it would be simple to answer in twenty seconds, figuring out the black letter law on these kinds of basic topics is more difficult than you’d think.
Consider the existing options. Treatises are always a good start – but digital versions are prohibitively expensive while the hard copies are rarely kept in libraries and if they are, they’re not up to date. Law review articles are another possibility, but they rarely discuss foundational principles and instead, leap right into more obscure matters. Wikipedia is one of my personal favorites for finding a quick summary overview of a legal topic, but even assuming that Wikipedia is an accurate source, citing to Wikipedia for a legal proposition in a brief is kind of lame. Finally, you could run a search using any one of the commercial legal research tools… and either spend hours culling through the 10,000 cases that the search would generate and tearing your hair out in frustration over cases that bear no relationship to the keynote that drew you to them.
But recently, Casetext introduced two cool new features that address this research conundrum. “Black letter law” does just that – it culls pronouncements and standards that are well settled areas. Take, for example, involving whether an independent contractor is an employee. I ran a search using those two terms, and Casetext quickly informed me that the “determinative question” of employment status relates to degree of control, and also that employment status is a mixed question of law and fact.
I ran a second search seeking black letter law on an issue covered during the first year of law school: whether punitive damages are available for breach of contract. Again, I hit pay direct with 25 on point statements of black letter law. (Spoiler alert: the answer is no, except if there’s also fraud or other tortious conduct involved).
Casetext’s “black letter law” research algorithm is still developing – which is why it won’t always find black letter law on certain topics, particularly those where there’s not much caselaw. In these instances, the Casetext “holdings” option works just as well. The search method that Casetext uses for holdings is broader than for black letter law – and it’s gleaned from the parentheticals in reported cases (how cool is that?) As you can see from the example below, libel and “public figure” didn’t have any black letter law, but the holdings still gets it right by identifying a few of the required factors for a public figure to succeed on a libel claim.
Of course, Casetext is still continuing to improve on the suite of three dimensional research tools like CARA that I posted about last year. But if you just need a simple answer or citation, the features discussed in this post will make finding black letter much better – and because of their accuracy, will leave you less upsetter.