September/October 2008 issue

Chief Justice Roberts Cites Importance of Traditional Legal Research Skills


by Melissa Miller, Branch Librarian, Des Moines

On Thursday, October 2, 2008, approximately 2,500 people gathered at the Drake Knapp Center in Des Moines, Iowa, to hear U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. deliver the 11th annual Dwight D. Opperman Lecture in Constitutional Law.

Robert's lecture stressed the importance of using traditional legal research skills in addition to online legal research tools. Roberts began his lecture by describing the major renovation that is occurring at the Supreme Court Building, the first comprehensive renovation since the building opened in 1935. Roberts noted that among the reasons for the renovation is the need to keep up with changes in technology, including changes in the areas of legal research and analysis.

He then traced the history of information resources in the law from ancient Greece and Rome, to the invention of the printing press in 1439, to the opening of the Library of Congress in the early 1800's, and to the emergence of computer-assisted and web-based research.

Roberts noted that today's online search tools are powerful but that they can be misused and have limitations. He warned against blind reliance on research that focuses merely on words and not on concepts. "Lawyers run the risk that word searches will uncover reams of marginally relevant precedent, superficially on-point, distracting lawyers from engaging in critical analysis or structuring of the underlying legal principles."

Roberts continued to say, “There is, I believe, a lot of value in thinking outside the box, but the key word is thinking… You cannot think effectively outside the box if you don't know where the box is."

To listen to Chief Justice Roberts' lecture, click on the audio link on this Radio of Iowa web page.