The Dangers of Easy Internet Legal Research

Internet legal research

“The law requires proof of jurisdiction to appear on the record of the administrative agency and all administrative proceedings”

I came across that quote recently while doing a little internet legal research. It was attributed to a decision of the Supreme Court in a case cited as “Hagans v. Lavine, 415 U.S. 533” in the brief where I found it. The brief was on federal jurisdiction, and that sentence seemed to be exactly what I was looking for.

Was I happy to find it? You bet I was. But when you find a choice bit of case law on the internet, you are well advised to investigate it yourself.

It is my habit when I come across quotes from controlling cases that I find on the internet (as opposed to a law library or Annotated Code) to look up the case and make sure the quoted phrase is accurate. 

I was a little suspicious because the citation appeared in the brief exactly as shown above. The way it is written the citation is incomplete. It contains the name of the case and the volume and page number of the reporter in which in which it appears, but a proper citation will also include the page number where the specific quoted phrase can be found, and the year the decision was rendered.  In this particular case, the author of the brief got the page number of the reporter wrong, the case begins on page 528, not page 533. He also did not include the page number where the quote is to be found, and left out the year of the decision.

Improper citations always raise a red flag for me when I’m doing research. In this case, the red flag was properly flown, the cited quote doesn’t appear anywhere in the case. You can check it out for yourself here:

Hagans v. Lavine, 415 U.S. 528, (1974).

Not only that, but the quotation, entered as a long, exact search term in Google, returned 39 instances of that exact full quotation on various documents and web sites where it is presented as an accurate quote from the case. Many of the sites and documents in which this absolutely non-existent quote appears hold themselves out as legal scholars, and credible interpreters of the law.

The internet has made doing legal research lots easier than it has ever been. I’m a regular user of free services like Google Scholar, Justia and Findlaw. Nevertheless, researchers would be well advised to check every citation before relying on one to support a case.


Lysander Venible is the author of "On Your Own in Tax Court," a book about how to save your shirt in U.S. tax court. He has been engaged with the Service for over 10 years both administratively and in tax court.

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Lysander is not an attorney and it is not his intent to offer legal advice.

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1 comment to The Dangers of Easy Internet Legal Research

  • Hope

    Lysander, here is another one you see all over the place but the quotation CANNOT be found in the case: Inasmuch as every government is an artificial person, an abstraction, and a creature of the mind only, a government can interface only with artificial persons… Penhallow v Doane’s Administrators, 3 U.S. 54, 1 L.Ed. 57; 3 Dall.54.

    Because it sounded just too good to be true and I have the fortunate habit of researching before I use a cite, I looked it up. Can’t stress it enough — look these quotes up folks! Some “agent Smith” probably put that out there to see how many people will fall for it.

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