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Law.Gov Issues Principles and Declaration
by
Posted On August 23, 2010
Will you ever get free access to the authentic primary law (acts, codes, statutes, regulations, judicial opinions) affecting your life, your business, your money, and relationships?

What is Law.Gov and Why Should We Care?

If you have ever wondered what the law required of you, or ever looked up the vehicle code section that you allegedly violated (according to the police officer who gave you the ticket), you are not alone. Could you find it online? Was it correct, current, from a reliable source, did you even have a clue to the answers to these questions? Probably not.

The founder of Law.Gov, Carl Malamud believes everyone should be able to find the laws that affect them. “Law.Gov is an idea, an idea that the primary legal materials of the United States should be readily available to all, and that governmental institutions should make these materials available in bulk as distributed, authenticated, well-formatted data.” Mr. Malamud has the credentials, since he is behind public.resource.org, has liberated the building and public safety codes adopted by states and municipalities (despite claims of copyright by the code originators; see the Veeck case below), EDGAR corporate records, and other public government information.  

Fifteen public Law.Gov workshops were held throughout the nation starting at Stanford Law School in January 2010 and ending at Harvard Law School in June. “This open, inclusive process had over 600 attendees and included an in-depth examination of issues such as privacy, technical details of document dissemination, authentication, copyright, and other aspects of the distribution of primary legal materials. The workshops resulted in a consensus on 10 core principles.” The core principles can be found in the sidebar below and at http://resource.org/law.gov/.

I find there are two reactions from people who were unaware of this movement. Some believe that “it is all on the internet” already, while others believe that this should be an obvious “slam dunk, no brainer” and therefore easy to accomplish. NewsBreak readers are much more aware than those people. We have witnessed the slow, torturous efforts to extract reliable government and public domain legal information to provide free access on the internet—listed in Sidebar 2 (and many I missed).

Those who are more aware of this movement are concerned that it could fail, like so many other noble projects. So before I describe these concerns, I implore you to write your legislators (state and federal) to endorse Law.Gov and support legislation to create reliable free public access to authoritative current government primary legal information and documents, and move them to add retrospective versions (of codes, statutes, acts, regulations) as well. Furthermore, ask any lawyers and judges or appellate justices that you know to lobby for free, authoritative judicial opinions as well.

One of the points of concern is that the signatories to the Ten Core Principles are primarily academics—not legislators, judges, or others. This concern was expressed by Greg Lambert at 3 Geeks and a Law Blog. In response Ed Walters of FastCase noted that the entrepreneurs are always ahead of government in liberating government information, and that in fact, if you read, listen, or watch videos of the workshops, you will note that there are representatives of state and federal government executive, judicial, and legislative branches.

I might point out that many of the government officials essential to the success of Law.Gov and interested in authenticated primary legal information, attended the AALL National Summit on Authentic Legal Information in the Digital Age, as can be seen by the agenda and final report to the AALL membership. I counted a California Supreme Court justice, a representative from Oregon’s Secretary of State, the Washington State Digital Archivist, and the Reporter of Decisions from Ohio on the program! And that doesn’t include the many government officials who attended but weren’t on the program.

If you think progress has not already been made, you are quite wrong! If you think there is nothing you can do, you couldn’t be more mistaken. The AALL has noted a number of actions (including work with and for Law.Gov) that arose from the Summit on Authentication, has, as a matter of policy identified their Core Values concerning Public Information on Government Web Sites and has invited interested persons to assist in moving each of their states forward (http://www.aallnet.org/aallwash/webinar_authentication.pdf). So join us (http://www.aallnet.org/aallwash/stateworkinggroupvolunteers.pdf)!

This is what we are tasked to do (http://www.aallnet.org/aallwash/stateworkinggroups.pdf) to provide accessible, reliable comprehensive, official, and authenticated legal information (and provide for its preservation) for all Americans:

  • First, take action to oppose any plan in your state to eliminate an official print legal resource in favor of online-only unless the electronic version is digitally authenticated and will be preserved for permanent public access, or to charge fees to access legal information electronically. This is an increasingly common problem as states respond to severe budget cuts.
  • Second, ensure that a disclaimer is added to any legal resources in a state’s raw-data portal so that users know that the information is not an official or authentic resource.
  • Third, collaborate on the ground-breaking effort led by Erika Wayne at Stanford University’s Robert Crown Law Library and Carl Malamud of Public.Resource.Org to develop a national inventory of all primary legal resources at every level of government.

The issues were clearly identified by Mary Alice Baish at a recent ABA program, “When is a law the law? Why Authenticity and Quality Matter.” The “e-life cycle management includes (1) Creation; (2) Version control; (3) Finding tools (cataloging, metadata); (4) Citation; (5) Authentication; (6) Permanent public access; [and] (7) Preservation.” Clear articulation of the who, what, why, when, where and how at each step of the cycle is crucial to validating data that one finds on the internet as reliable or not.

Working on these problems are the Library of Congress, the AALL and its chapters, the American Bar Association’s committee on the Library of Congress, The National Conference of State Legislatures, and the National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform State Laws Drafting Committee on Authentication and Preservation of State Electronic Legal Materials, Justia—andCarl Malamud with the supporters of Law.Gov.

Law.Gov has simply got to succeed. I beg you to become informed, lobby, teach, and even preach the Ten Core Principles to all who will listen. Volunteer for your state working group, write an article for your professional journal, speak at a program, write letters, quietly help your friends on task forces.

Whatever you do, do something.

For More Information

Quite a few resources are available online for those who wish to learn more about law in the public domain and the law.gov progress in particular:

The Law.Gov Mailing List: The mailing list keeps you up-to-date on Law.Gov and other efforts such as the FCC’s National Broadband Plan (see Recommendation 15.1 at page 318 in the March 16, 2010 release at http://www.broadband.gov/download-plan/).

Other blogs that have covered Law.Gov and other timely public domain issues include Law Librarian, Legal Research Plus, Free Government Info, and 3 Geeks and a Law Blog. Note that each has its own different take on the issues.

Couldn’t attend the workshops? Not a problem, since they are available on the Internet!

Video from Law.Gov Workshops on the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=collection%3Agovernance&sort=-publicdate)

Video from Law.Gov Workshops on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=8F37CB2515AAA6D0)

Want to get a very informative, scholarly, and short history of efforts to compile and liberate government information, including the Congressional Record, Government Printing Office, Federal Register, EDGAR, and PACER? Read, listen or watch video of By the People, Carl Malamud’s address to the Government 2.0 Summit, Washington, D.C., Sept.10, 2009 at http://public.resource.org/people/ which includes “29 Things Government Could Do Today.”

SIDEBAR 1

The Ten Core Principles

The primary legal materials of the United States are the raw materials of our democracy. They should be made more broadly available to enable an informed citizenry.

Primary legal materials include documents of primary authority issued by governmental bodies, such as court opinions, statutes, and regulations. They also include the supporting documents and other media issued and maintained by those bodies, such as dockets, hearings, forms, oral arguments, and legislative histories. These materials can be found in every branch, at every level, national, tribal, state and local, and should be available to anyone with the will and the heart to obtain them.

The following principles should govern the dissemination of primary legal materials in the United States:

  1. Direct fees for dissemination of primary legal materials should be avoided.
  2. Limitations on access through terms of use or the assertion of copyright on primary legal materials is contrary to long-standing public policy and core democratic principles and is misleading to citizens.
  3. Primary legal materials should be made available using bulk access mechanisms so they may be downloaded by anyone.
  4. The primary legal materials, and the methods used to access them, should be authenticated so people can trust in the integrity of these materials.
  5. Historical archives should be made available online and in a static location to the extent possible.
  6. Vendor- and media-neutral citation mechanisms should be employed.
  7. Technical standards for document structure, identifiers, and metadata should be developed and applied as extensively as possible.
  8. Data should be distributed in a computer-processable, non-proprietary form in a manner that meets best current practices for the distribution of open government data. That data should represent the definitive documents, not just aggregate, preliminary, or modified forms.
  9. An active program of research and development should be sponsored by governmental bodies that issue primary legal materials to develop new standards and solutions to challenges presented by the electronic distribution of definitive primary legal materials. Examples include the automated detection and redaction of private personal information in documents.
  10. An active program of education, training, and documentation should be undertaken to help governmental bodies that issue primary legal materials learn and use best current practices.

Adherence to these principles by governmental bodies is not just good for democracy and justice, it will spur innovation and will encourage:

  1. Broader use of legal materials in all parts of our education system, including our law schools.
  2. Researchers in law schools, universities, and other research institutions to have broader access to bulk data, spurring important research on the functioning of our government.
  3. Innovation in the legal information market by reducing barriers to entry.
  4. Savings in the government’s own cost of providing these materials through adherence to best current practices.
  5. Small businesses to understand rules and regulations they must deal with, reducing their costs, and increasing their effectiveness.
  6. Increased foreign trade by making it easier for our foreign partners to understand our laws.
  7. Better access to justice by making legal information more broadly available to citizens.

How we distribute the raw materials of our democracy is a foundational issue in our system of government. Access to the raw materials of our democracy is a prerequisite for the rule of law and access to justice and makes real the principles of equal protection and due process.

SIDEBAR 2

A short list of some prior (successful and not-so-successful) efforts to bring primary law to the internet

Free access to law has been the subject of many efforts:

  • Project Hermes and the first free real-time distribution of U. S. Supreme Court opinions in 1990 via the Cleveland Free-Net (see http://www.lights.ca/hytelnet/ful/ful020.html).
  • Academic efforts by Washburn University’s WashlawWeb (“WashLaw Web provides users with links to law-related materials on the Internet”); Cornell University Law School's Legal Information Institute  (“We are a not-for-profit organization that believes everyone should be able to read and understand the laws that govern them, without cost.” We carry out this vision by: Publishing law online (http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/), for free; Creating materials that help people understand law (http://topics.law.cornell.edu/wex); and Exploring new technologies (http://topics.law.cornell.edu/wiki/lexcraft) that make it easier for people to find the law), and its progeny around the world.
  • The World Legal Information Institute “free, independent, and non-profit access to worldwide law with 1,165 databases from 123 jurisdictions via 14 Legal Information Institutes.
  • NREN
  • Ralph Nader’s Taxpayer Asset Project under James Love
  • The AALL Universal Citation efforts to break citations away from commercial sources or print-based proprietary products.
  • The case of Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress International, 293 F. 3d 791 (5th Cir. 2002) where a citizen had posted to the internet the building regulations adopted by his municipality—from model codes copyrighted by the publisher. The court held that “as law, the model codes enter the public domain and are not subject to the copyright holder’s exclusive prerogatives.”
  • Federal, state, and local government’s own noble-yet-uneven efforts to give citizens access to the laws, regulations, and opinions affecting their lives. As pointed out by the American Association of Law Libraries’ State-by-State Report on Authentication of Online Legal Resources, “A significant number of the state online legal resources are official but none are authenticated or afford ready authentication by standard methods. State online primary legal resources are therefore not sufficiently trustworthy. Citizens and law researchers may reasonably doubt their authority and should approach such resources critically.” Find the original 2007 report and 2009/2010 updates at http://www.aallnet.org/committee/eliac/AuthReportUpdate.html. “The [Electronic Legal Information Access and Citation (ELIAC)] Committee serves to advance the law library profession’s principles concerning public information provided on government web sites and to promote uniformity in citation reform.” Follow the committee at http://www.aallnet.org/committee/eliac.asp and be sure to check out the Guidelines for Evaluation of Government Information on the Web.
  • Google Scholar’s judicial opinions online are the biggest newest source of free judicial opinions.


Carol Ebbinghouse is law library director at the California 2nd District Court of Appeals and the "Sidebar" legal columnist for Searcher magazine.

Email Carol Ebbinghouse

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