While I would concur with Ann's recommendation relating to visiting a law library, there are also a variety of other low cost or FREE avenues for investigation.
Lexis-Nexis is an online fee-based legal information repository. It is VERY EXPENSIVE to use with several notable exceptions.
First, very often academic or county law libraries (in large counties) make an academic version of Lexis available for free for in library use by patrons. Moreover, many other non-law academic libraries also make Lexis availabe from computers within the college or university library. For example, I have found that most county community colleges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have FREE Lexis available within their libraries. I cannot speak to availability in other states, but I would encourage you to CALL or VISIT both your local community library, as well as the libraries of nearby colleges and universities. ASK if they have Lexis.
Bear in mind that while the academic libraries are primarily intended for enrolled students, some of these are also publicly funded and are also sometimes government document repositories. In these instances, the library is open to the general public.
Second, Lexis has a Lexis by Credit Card feature that allows for searching and retrieval of cases for registered users who are NOT regular subscribers, but who agree to PAY through their credit card. The Lexis by Credit Card feature is available from:
Lexis by Credit Card is a VERY EXPENSIVE way to pull up cases ($9 per case). BUT SEARCHES ON LEXIS BY CREDIT CARD ARE FREE.
The Lexis search facility is unsurpassed in its power once you learn how to use it effectively.
I use my Lexis by Credit Card account to search for cases, FINDING THEM FOR FREE.
Once I have located a case which is interesting, I typically adopt one of the alternative strategies described below, rather than actually paying $9 to pull up the cases I find.
LexisOne is a FREE "light" version of Lexis. LexisOne is accessible from:
The LexisOne search is NOT nearly as powerful as the searches available at Lexis. But LexisOne has a Free Case Law feature, which makes available ALL U.S. Supreme Court cases going back to 1789, together with the past TEN YEARS of published Federal and State appellate cases.
You will NOT find state trial court cases here. Nor will you find U.S. District Court cases. And the cases which are more than ten years old are NOT available either.
For arcane areas of the law where there are very few published opinions, LexisOne can be pretty anemic. But for topics and issues addressed regularly by state appellate courts, ten years of case law can furnish a LOT of insight.
Where recent cases CITE older cases, you can put these on a list to LOOK UP on a trip to your community law or academic library.
State Court Web Sites
Many state court systems now make state court appellate decisions available online, but the offerings vary widely from state to state. Some states have terrific sites with exceptional accessibility. Other states are lagging far behind in technology.
Generally, the state courts are only making cases available online prospectively AFTER they began presenting decisions there. That is, most have NOT gone back and posted older decisions. But many court systems have been online long enough now that they have a decade or more of online decisions, in some instances both published and unpublished opinions.
Only a few weeks ago, a user of MS Fraud alerted me to the fact that Google now has a feature called Google Scholar, which makes quite a bit of case law available for FREE.
Google Scholar may be found from the drop down menu of additional choices at the regular Google main page. Or you can bookmark this page:
I have since found that Google Scholar, which is still in its infancy, is a very nice supplement to LexisOne. Though I have only been using Google Scholar for several weeks, I have several tentative observations:
I believe that we can reasonably surmise that Google is committed to this project and that the holdings/inclusion of cases will become more complete over time.
LexisOne is more COMPLETE than Google Scholar at this time as to published state and Federal appellate cases within the past ten years
Google Scholar makes some significant older state and Federal cases available, which cannot be found on LexisOne
Coverage for very old cases is very spotty within Google Scholar EXCEPT FOR U.S. Supreme Court cases
Realize that I have now shown FOUR different ways to obtain cases for FREE. For recent state and Federal appeallate cases and ALL U.S. Supreme Court cases, LexisOne is readily available FREE to registered users. Similarly, both recent published and unpublished cases are available at many state court web sites. Google Scholar gives some additional older cases not available on the state court or LexisOne sites. A trip to the library can very often result in access to the older cases through a free academic version of Lexis on library computers.
ALL current Federal cases are enrolled in the Federal online PACER system. U.S. District court and appellate decisions are available from PACER for FREE, though like LexisOne, you need to have an account. A LOT of other documents are also available through PACER at $0.08 per page.
The Buddy System
I have found that it is helpful to team up with other pro se litigants in a "Buddy System" of sorts. When I am headed to a local law library or an academic library with Lexis access, I usually e-mail one or more correspondents to see if they need me to look up some cases for them. That is, if they can TELL ME that they need a particular case, it is TRIVIAL to pull up the case while at the library and E-MAIL IT to the other person.
My "Buddies" reciprocate and let ME know when they are visiting a library with Lexis access. In this way, we help one another to obtain copies of the older cases without the necessity of a trip to the library ourselves.
I find myself reading twenty or more legal decisions a week. I have paid less than $100 per year to Lexis by judicious use of alternatives to paying for each case. But I almost ALWAYS use the Lexis search facility, even when I use the other data repositories to pull up the cases. This is pretty easy to do by using multiple Windows.