A funny thing happened on my way to the Chicago Law.gov meeting…
A little over a week ago, I got asked to look at local states’ online legal materials offerings so that I could give a brief spiel on them at the Chicago law.gov workshop. (I’ll tell you more about what I found in a minute.) Since I’m still relatively new to the jurisdiction, I asked around and sought some advice and one thing led to another and now I am heading up the Indiana Working Group for the AALL Inventory of State Legal Materials.
The link above has more information about the National Inventory. You can also read this Call to Action by Erika Wayne and Paul Lomio of Stanford Law School. Essentially, it boils down to this: the current hodge-podge system that states are using to put their legal materials up on the free Internet, frankly, sucks. There are big problems, such as lack of official status, no authentication, no preservation, etc. And smaller ones, such as basic usability and UX design problems.
If we want this to change, we need to organize. The law.gov workshops and information roadshow are one way of getting info to stake holders and people who make the decisions. We also need to have similar information sharing events locally – get this issue in front of state librarians and library groups, local bar associations and CIOs. And there also needs to be data collected so that organizations like AALL who have Government Relations Offices can really put the pressure on and advocate effectively.
Creating a state inventory of legal materials is not hard. It is, however, tedious and time consuming. And often horrifying if you at all care about the integrity of legal information. For Indiana, I got a google docs spreadsheet template from Mary Alice and Emily at the AALL Goverment Relations office. You can see the work in progress here. State level materials are on the far left, then moving to the right are county level and then municipalities. Oh, yeah, when I say inventory, I mean down to the every last municipal code from every one horse town I can find in this state.
Because, you know, the law isn’t just Big Motions for Justice argued in front of Supreme Courts. A lot of it is just regular Joes and Janes who want to know if their town’s zoning regulations will let them build that fence in their yard. And in 2010 they should be able to figure that out easily without having to consult an attorney or wade through disclaimers and copyright assertions that make them wonder about a dozen things besides their current legal issue, assuming that they can even find where on web their local government decided to put this information. But I digress…
Where was I? Right. State inventories. Not hard, but tedious. To keep confusion down with many contributors editing the document, Google Spreadsheets makes it pretty easy to create a web form that will populate the spreadsheet. Here is the one for the Indiana Inventory. If you are in Indiana and would like to volunteer, please let me know! (My contact information appears under the contact tab.) If you are in another state and would like to participate, contact your state working group coordinator. A complete list can be found here. Some states only have one or two people volunteered thus far and your help would be very appreciated, I’m sure.
For my minor contribution to law.gov Chicago, I looked at the major state level offerings of Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois. By “major”, I mean session laws, statutory compilations, administrative codes, administrative registers, supreme court cases and appellate court cases. From just that brief toe-dip, I was able to see the following trends and problems:
Non-jurisdiction Specific General Problems:
- No one stop shop for state laws – case law is held on court websites, statutory law on the legislatures’, admin law varies. My first year law students aren’t always aware of the separation of power and types of law each branch creates, so it may not be obvious to the general public that they will have to visit several different sites. Also, just as a random check, I googled “[state name] law” and none of the court websites appeared on the first page of results.
- Usability is a nightmare within these sites. Finding and navigating the information sources was difficult for me and I’m smarter than the average bear when it comes to navigating electronic legal information.
- It’s very hard to determine the official and/or authentic status of the laws posted on the web. That was the most time consuming part of the exercise, really.
- Predominant formats used were PDFs, Word/Wordperfect and HTML.
- In several instances, “official” versions were only obtainable from commerical publishers at significant costs.
- Nothing available online prior to 2000, with the exception of some non-code acts.
- The Indiana Administrative Code and Register is no longer being published in a print format. They do have “certificates of authenticity” but nothing electronically guaranteeing that.
- Copyright is a bit of an issue. There is a notice on the statutory and admin codes that the headnotes contained in them are copyrighted by Thomson West. The official case reporters are the Northeastern Reporter and the Indiana Cases offshoot of this reporter, both of which have “Copyright (C) [year] Thomson Reuters” in the front. Prior to the Thomson products being the official version, there were a state produced publications called “Indiana Reports” and “Indiana Court of Appeals Reports,” both of which have a “Copyright [year] State of Indiana” notice in them.
- Okay, this is hilarious. And by that I mean deeply disturbing. As many of you know, I am recently departed from the great Commonwealth of Kentucky. I spent three years teaching law students that there were two official versions of the state code, both published by commercial publishers. Well, that is wrong. As it turns out, the official Kentucky Revised Statutes is only created electronically and is stored in a database that only the Legislative Research Commission is able to really look at (although you can purchase a copy for personal use.) The print Lexis and West versions are only certified. The web version is clearly marked as unofficial and that no warranty is made to correctness or completeness.
- The Kentucky courts opinion search used search methods that I have never heard of before in my life. Stemming? Fuzzy searching?
- More copyright issues. Again, we have case law being printed in Thomson Reuters reporters with copyright notices in the front. Also, the front of the Revised Statutes have “Placing these files on the Internet does not alter or relinquish any copyright or proprietary interest or entitlement of the Commonwealth of Kentucky relating to this information.” …so does that mean that the Commonwealth is claiming copyright on them? I do not know.
- Illinois really surprised me. And by “surprised” I mean disappointed. For one of the larger states in the union, its online offerings were terrible.
- The online code was current only. As in current current. Changes were constantly being added, and no previous editions at all to be found. It was also stated that it was primarily for the legislature’s use.
- Also, there is no official print version of the code.
So, that’s just a brief overview. The unofficial spreadsheet that I used to cobble the Kentucky and Illinois information together can be found here. It’s mainly just my messy notes, but you are more than welcome to look at them.