Statutory Interpretation, Lesson 3, Part 1: Advanced search techniques

May 23, 2014

Law school blog 5

Advanced Searching With Terms & Connectors

If none of the techniques we went over in the previous lessons have worked, it’s time to move onto advanced searches. The following Terms & Connectors can be easily adapted to most queries.

#1: The Words & Phrases Field

If you are looking for a definition or interpretation of a short phrase or a single word, try using the Words-Phrases (WP) field. This field looks for cases & statutes where certain terms appear in quotes (“”), signifying to the reader that the writer is going to define those terms. To use the WP field, simply enter the following into your search bar:


So for example, if we want to search for what congress may have meant by the term “knowingly” in the False Claims Act we would run the following search:


Law school statutory interpretation 1 

Which gets us the following result in All Feds: “The statutory definition of “knowingly” requires at least “deliberate ignorance” or “reckless disregard.” To take advantage of a disputed legal question, as may have happened here, is to be neither deliberately ignorant nor recklessly disregardful. But that the Water Agency did no more than that cannot be determined from the complaint.” U.S. ex rel. Hagood v. Sonoma Cnty. Water Agency, 929 F.2d 1416, 1421 (9th Cir. 1991)

Tip: When using the WP Field, less is more. Try to limit yourself to a single word or a short phrase.

#2: Finding Case-Law Defining a Term

Perhaps the most direct approach to defining a term in a statute is putting a Terms & Connectors search together that looks for cases that explicitly define the term. Here is a sample search that you can alter for your research:


So, for example, if we wanted to determine what qualifies as “unemployed” under the California Unemployment Insurance Code, we could do a search like this:


That gives us a number of helpful cases right out of the gate, including this case:

Where employee had been laid off from principal employment as assembler at time she applied for unemployment benefits but was holding a part-time sales job working 12 and one-half hours a week and making weekly wage of less than weekly benefit accruing by reason of lay-off, employee, at time of application for benefits, was “ unemployed” within meaning of Unemployment Insurance Code.

Tomlin Unempl. Ins. Appeals Bd., 147 Cal. Rptr. 403 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 1978)

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Tip: For best results also add the statutory section as a term in the search to weed-out miss-hits.