Ineffective Assistance of Library: The Failings and the Future of Prison Law Libraries

By Jonathan Abel, in Volume 101, Issue #5 of The Georgetown Law Journal (June 2013).  Here’s the abstract:

The prison law library has long been a potent symbol of the inmate’s right to access the courts. But it has never been a practical tool for providing that access. This contradiction lies at the core of the law library doctrine. It takes little imagination to see the problem with requiring untrained inmates, many of them illiterate or non-English speakers, to navigate the world of postconviction relief and civil rights litigation with nothing more than the help of a few library books. Yet law libraries are ubiquitous in American prisons. Now, in light of a technological revolution in legal research methods, prison libraries face an existential crisis that requires prison officials, courts, scholars, and inmates to reconsider the very purpose of the prison law library. This Article takes up that challenge by providing a novel historical account of the prison law library’s development.

This Article uses original historical research to show how prison law libraries arose, not as a means of accessing the courts, but rather as a means of controlling inmates’ behavior. By placing the origin of the prison law library in the first decades of the twentieth century–half a century earlier than typical accounts–this Article shows how the law library evolved to take on a new purpose in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Supreme Court and other courts first began to fashion a law library doctrine. The central argument of this Article is simple: The courts’ attempts to graft an access-to-courts rationale onto a law library system that had developed for other purposes led to a law library doctrine riddled with contradictions and doomed to failure. This historical account helps explain a prison law library system that never really made sense in terms of providing access to the courts. As prisons look to update their law libraries in light of sweeping technological changes, it is all the more important to understand the history of the law library system so that authorities can plan for its future.

 

 

Legal Information Institute for China?

The Legal Information Institutes (LIIs) have been spearheading the free access to law movement throughout the world. Until recently, China has been conspicuously absent from the family of LIIs; however, that may soon change.

The Internet Law Review (网络法律评论) from Peking University Law School is working on an upcoming article that focuses on the possibility of forming a legal information institute in China. Keep an eye out for the article tentatively titled: “Law via the Internet: Why there is no LII for China.”

If you are interested in China’s development of a LII or Chinese legal research in general, you may wish to attend the the Chinese and American Forum on Legal Information and Law Libraries (CAFLL) Conference scheduled for Shanghai from June 11-12, 2013. CAFLL conferences offer a unique opportunity for Chinese and foreign law librarians to exchange ideas and expertise.

Additional conference information is available at the CAFLL Website:

http://cafllnet.org/annual-conference/

Wishing our Chinese colleagues good luck with promoting free access to law in China.

Law.gov video presentation now online!

In a January 2, 2010 op-ed in the New York Times entitled “A Nation of Do-It-Yourself Lawyers,” California Chief Justice Ronald George and New Hampshire Chief Justice John T. Broderick Jr. asked “how can we help those who are left to represent themselves in court?”

One thing we can do is make the law of the nation freely available.  Today much of the law remains behind a pay wall, often a very expensive pay wall.

There have been efforts to liberate the law — five guys at Cornell (Cornell’s Legal Information Institute), three guys at Google (Google Scholar legal opinions), and others.  The federal government has made strides too, eCFR remains a model of free, updated legal content, but as the first paragraph explains on the eCFR website disclaims, “It is not an official legal edition of the CFR.”  State government efforts are as varied as the 50 states and District of Columbia.

So what to do?

Law.gov is a campaign to identify what a national law registry should include, and to make recommendations to the policy makers on how to structure a repository of all primary legal materials (and maybe more) at all levels of government.

The Stanford Law Library hosted a Law.gov kickoff event on January 12, 2010 and the day’s events included a terrific panel discussion with Carl Malamud, Anurag Acharya (Google Scholar lead engineer) and law professor Jonathan Zittrain, moderated by Stanford Law School lecturer Roberta Morris.  We now have a streaming video link from this discussion and it’s definitely worth viewing:

http://www.law.stanford.edu/calendar/details/3717/#related_media

Bob Berring and Tom Bruce – Twin sons of different mothers

A couple of weeks ago our friend and hero Tim Stanley from Justia gave his terrific free-resources presentation at our Advanced Legal Research class.  As an in-class exercise the next class session, we asked the students to briefly share some aspect of what they learned from Tim’s talk.  One student wrote:

I learned that there are a variety of free resources available besides Lexis & Westlaw.  I also learned that Oklahoma is actually one of the best states in terms of keeping their cases & statutes up-t0-date online.  One of the more fascinating things that I learned was that Cornell’s US Code online is probably the best free resource of the U.S. Code . . .

Since a question earlier in the quarter from a student about FDSys was followed up by an in-class answer by Public Printer Bob Tapella, we had to follow our student’s comment about the LII USC with a visit from the LII director! 

One of the joys of living in the San Francisco Bay Area for me is how, at some point or another, everyone passes through.  Last week Tom Bruce, from Cornell’s Legal Information Institute  was in town (we knew this from his Twitter stream) and so we tapped him to come and talk to our class.  Tom gave a terrific, inspiring talk to our class.  More on Tom’s visit here.  Tom is an incredibly dynamic and entertaining speaker — go hear him if you ever get the chance!

Tom’s talk focused on these three not-so-simple questions:

1) Why does anybody do legal research?
2) How much should it cost?
3) How good does it have to be?

Tom began the talk by showing the Bob Berring (also a dynamic and entertaining, not to be missed speaker) video that is making the law library rounds right now.

While Tom agrees with everything that Bob says (and I guess that I do too, although I wish that Bob had said “Lexis and West” rather than just “West”), seeing the Berring clip and then seeing Tom, well, the Dan Fogelberg Twin Sons of Different Mothers album came immediately to mind.  See for yourself the resemblance.

The gist of Tom’s talk is now online in a new video his LII has produced.

The LII blog has more about Tom’s visit, along with a number of related links, here

“Five guys at Cornell” have done some amazing things, and Tom gave a little preview of further good things under development.  Maybe high-stakes lawyers do need and will always need LexisNexis or Westlaw, but the rest of us and the entire world needs Tom and his LII.