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.

 

 

PACER Training Pilot Project Begins in July

PACER Training Pilot Project Begins in July
June 17, 2011

A pilot project aimed at having public libraries enhance the public’s knowledge and use of the federal judiciary’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service begins July 1, 2011.

Two libraries – the Library of Congress in the District of Columbia and the Law Library for San Bernadino, California – will kick off the pilot, but up to 50 additional public libraries may join them in future months.

PACER allows users to obtain case information from federal courts without having to visit the courthouse. The service allows an Internet user to request information about a particular case or party, and makes the data immediately available for printing or downloading at a cost of 8 cents per page.

In the pilot project, libraries will conduct at least one training class for the general public every three months, and offer training or refresher opportunities for library staff at least one a year. Those staff members, in turn, may assist library patrons in the use of PACER. For participating libraries, the first $50 of PACER use fees each quarter will be waived.

The pilot is a joint undertaking of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, the Government Printing Office, and the American Association of Law Libraries.

How widespread is WestlawNext?

A student asked me this question.  Since I live and work in the beautiful bubble known as Stanford University,and have no idea how things work in the Real World, I turned to outside help to answer the student’s question.

I first asked our Westlaw representative, who provided this interesting and useful piece of information:

Based on a recent article about Thomson Reuters revenue, “The WestlawNext legal database has been sold to more than 18,500 customers since its launch in February 2010, representing 34 percent of Westlaw’s revenue base.”

http://us.mobile.reuters.com/article/businessNews/idUSTRE73R2OI20110428

 

But I knew that our students would want to know more specific information, so I sent out a quick request on the Northern California Association of Law Libraries (NOCALL) listserv.  I received 21 replies — 6 from Biglaw law firms, 8 from small/midsize firms, 2 from county law libraries, 4 from the courts (U.S. District, United States Court of Appeals and California Appellate), and 1 from a state agency.  Of the 6 Biglaw law firms, 4 have WestlawNext (although one, at present, is only making it available to firm librarians — see comments below) and 2 do not.

Of the 8 small/midsize firms, 5 have WestlawNext and 3 do not.

None of the public sector law libraries have WestlawNext.  The state agency reports that it might be added this summer.  I did find it a little ironic that the court libraries do not have WestlawNext — didn’t West get started by wooing the judiciary and treating judges extra special nice?

The comments I received were also very useful and I read many of them to my students, since they contain some great research tips and insights.

Here are a few of the comments:

I know that when firm librarians first saw the marketing materials, we were worried that the quality of search results would go down due to the one-box searching, but if anything the opposite has happened.  The result ranking is much better than it was previously, and you can see a lot more information before clicking into a document, which is great.

Our firm has a flat rate contract, so even though there is a cost for the original search ($50), the amount billed back to the client is significantly lower.  They shouldn’t be scared to use the resource due to the cost (at our firm anyway).  It’s in line with Lexis and the old version of Westlaw.  But of course, books are still cheaper.
Of course, they should still use good search practices so we’re not charging the client needlessly – searching broadly and then narrowing the focus, thinking before clicking into documents, checking before getting material from outside our pricing plan.  You can refer back to materials saved to a folder for a year, for free.  I’m saving a ton of material to folders.
The “price triggers” that incur costs: initial search, opening a document, clicking on the keycite materials. 
Our firm’s flat-rate contract doesn’t cover the PDF images of reporters – that’s the only place where you’re not warned before getting material outside of our contract.
We did a firm survey last year, and honestly, most of our attorneys start their research process on Google because it’s free.  Once they have useful information (like a case name or a statute or a law review article), they’ll go online and find all the related documents and secondary sources.  WestlawNext does a really good job of that, and the new format for KeyCite makes it easy to trace between material types. 
 
One more caveat: Keycite and Shepards both may say a case is good law when underlying statutes or cases have been invalidated (not always, but sometimes).  They don’t always catch it when a case has been invalidated by new legislation, as well.  Knowing how far to trust citator services is important.

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Only librarians have been given permission to use WLN.  We will be offering mandatory class(es) on the product before attorneys are given passwords to access it.  We are aware that the law school students have been exposed to WLN & will likely expect to use it upon entering into the firm environment, so our window to get up-to-speed is fast approaching.Caveats:  Not everything has been loaded into WLN, so it could be frustrating to attorneys when prompted to transition in the middle of their research  to go to Westlaw. We’re also not sure if the costs will increase since clicking on any results keeps adding up the total.  I know we librarians have had conference call discussions about some of the quirky searching & results . . . .  Do I like it?  I had a trial ID & have not used it much since our contract went into effect in January.  I’m still “on the fence” about it, but realize it is the wave of the future in this Googlish society.
 
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The federal courts do not have WestlawNext at this time, and my understanding is that while the Administrative Office in D.C. has discussed it with Thomson-Reuters, there is no plan to purchase it for the federal judiciary in the near future.
 
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We are using it.  The attorneys really like it.  One thing I’ve learned about it is that you should never choose the hourly setting on WestlawNext.  Always use it in transactional mode since the nature of it promotes lots of browsing time.  Most law firms are turning off the hourly feature and forcing transactional mode, but if not it can wreak havoc with your flat-rate contract client allocation.
 
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My advice for students:  Know how much the search costs are before you do it.  And always call the research attorneys — they know their tool better than any of us ever will.
 
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We aren’t using it in the [state] Judicial Branch.  It’s way too expensive and we can’t afford it!  And if Westlaw itself becomes too expensive for us we may be forced to use just one service.  Since Lexis has the official reporting contract, we must have access to them.
 
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We do not have WestlawNext.  We did a trial of it and it has potential, but we are not willing to pay extra for it.
 
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I see other problems besides cost for WestlawNext in law firms.  To oversimplify: Google on new steroids represents WestlawNext’s research model. That model shows remarkable detachment from application to real-life research problems in law firms.  The stock examples used in WestlawNext’s demos fit TR’s marketing well enough, but I could not translate them into everyday, online research done in law firms. I also see evidence of algorithmic anomalies – possibly widespread – that have only begun to be explored.
 
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We have been using WLN for the past year.  We hopped on the band wagon pretty early due to a demo seen here by our litigation partners.  The litigation attorneys like it a lot.  Power users of regular Westlaw have a big learning curve so do not like it quite as much.  It is great, however, for researching an area you may be unfamiliar with since it will give you the most relevant cases up front.  Our attys like this feature.  The attys also like the cost..they can figure out how much their research will cost them before going in since a search runs about $65
and then you can open as many docs as you want until you hit your research budget ($15/doc. or so).  It relieves some the pressure they feel when going in.  I think it is here to stay.  Even [after] I have cancelled Lexis access here, cut my print budget and staffing, the WLN contract was added without blinking an eye. . . .
 
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We require everyone to be trained first on regular Westlaw. We will then train them on WestlawNext.  There a cost pitfalls with both.  Searching is cheaper and broader with WestlawNext, but if you want to look at lots of documents, you will run up the costs. Initial searching Westlaw is probably narrower (have to select a database), but then the documents don’t cost additional to view.
 
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I would recommend that students avoid WestlawNext like the plague until they have a solid grasp on doing research on their own.  You do not want to be dependant on an algorithm created by a corporation to be able to do an essential part of your job.
 
I think Next can be a valuable tool and time-saver for attorneys who understand what the algorithm is doing and what the resources are it is returning in the results, but I worry if students start learning how to research using Next, they will not be able to do any research when they leave school unless they are using, and paying a steep price for, Next.
 
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The two main reasons [we don’t have it] is that Westlaw would require us to have a separate contract for WestlawNext (we see this as paying for Westlaw twice), and WestlawNext does not have all of Westlaw’s content. . . .
 
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Though honestly we haven’t embraced it completely and probably won’t until West tells us they are pulling the plug on classic.  I think it is a good product.  I like the $60.00 search and the left-hand screen that guides you to your hits.  The biggest issue is the pricing per document.  Those clicks just add up.  I am planning on asking our summer assoc. class if they are using Classic or NEXT, then based on the response, the rep. will concentrate on one or the other for the orientation. It will be interesting to see where the product stands with this first summer class who have potentially been using it at school.
 
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We at the California Appellate Courts are not.  We have Westlaw and Lexis . . . [and] should be rolling out LMO [Lexis for Microsoft Office] soon, but that is as fancy as we are getting.
 
 
 
 
 

The Eggplant That Ate the Spokane County Law Library

 

You’d better watch out for the eggplant that ate Chicago,
For he may eat your city soon.
You’d better watch out for the eggplant that ate Chicago,
If he’s still hungry, the whole country’s doomed.

 

The 3 Geeks and a Law Blog pointed me to a story in the Spokane, Washington newspaper Spokesman-Review.  I won’t rehash what he 3 Geeks blog item “Spokane County Law Library Needs Bailout for Westlaw Bills” opines, but the Spokesman-Review story by reporter John Craig, “Spokane County law library falls behind on bills,”  is disturbing to me on several levels.

The story quotes the librarian as saying that her Westlaw fees “are three times as much as the company was charging Pierce County . . . for the ‘exact same’ service.”  I do not know the details, but I can see how a reader might be led to believe that this poor county law library is being gouged by a huge monopolistic corporation. 

What is also disturbing to me is the report that the library is averaging $ 12,000 a month for Westlaw service, while its annual budget is only $ 220,000.  The library’s total labor costs are reported to be $ 78,236, which means that the county is paying Westlaw roughly twice what it’s paying its staff.   At the Stanford Law Library the total we spend for our staff is roughly twice what we spend for all materials (online and print), and that seems right to me — it’s the staff that is our most valuable resource.

The third disturbing element to the story is the suggestion that perhaps the county law library is a “relic” and should be shuttered for more “cost effective approaches” such as having public libraries (and not specialized law libraries) serve the legal information needs of the public.  To me this is short-sighted on so many levels that I could go on and on for pages about why this is a bad direction.

If this story does not help build a case for Law.gov, I don’t know what would.

Many states have discontinued publishing official state reports and rely upon West instead.  Appendix D of Fundamentals of Legal Research, 9th Edition, by Steven M. Barkan, Roy M. Mersky and Donald J. Dunn, includes a table “States That Have Discontinued Publishing Official State Reports” (excerpted below) showing what states have adopted West’s National Reporter System as the official publisher.

Washington is not one of these states.   It appears that Washington is one of the more progressive states in providing decisional law to the public for free.  The Washington State Court website contains free opinions from the last 90 days, and then links to www.legalWA.org ; the LegalWA site links directly to the Municipal Research Services Center of Washington, a nonprofit dedicated to providing free legal resources for Washington where case law from 1854 forward can be found.

There is definitely a place for expensive LexisNexis and Westlaw bills — in the high stakes world of Biglaw litigation (with clients to bill back) for certain, but in a county public law library?  There has got to be a better way.

Here’s an excerpt from that table I mentioned above:

B. STATES THAT HAVE DISCONTINUED PUBLISHING OFFICIAL STATE REPORTS.

Except for Louisiana, all states have discontinued their official reports have adopted West’s National Reporter System, or an offprint of the National Reporter System, as official.  Alaska has used the Pacific Reporter as its official reporter since it became a state.

[Copied below are the states listed in this table, next to the “Year of Last Case”]

Alabama                            1976

Ala. App.                           1976

Colorado                           1980

Colo. App.                        1980

Delaware                           1966

Florida                               1948

Indiana                              1981

Ind. App.                          1979

Iowa                                   1968

Kentucky                         1951

Louisiana                        1972

Maine                               1965

Minnesota                      1977

Mississippi                    1966

Missouri                        1956

Mo. App.                       1952

North Dakota              1953

Oklahoma                    1953

Okla. Crim.                  1953

Rhode Island             1980

South Dakota             1976

Tennessee                   1971

Tenn. App.                  1972

Tenn. Crim. App.      1970

Texas                            1962

Tex. Crim. App.       1963

Utah 2d                        1974

Wyoming                    1959