Law.gov: National Inventory of Legal Materials

Last week, Paul blogged about the Law.gov video from the first workshop held here at Stanford Law School on January 12th.   In his posting, Paul shared an op-ed from the New York Times entitled “A Nation of Do-It-Yourself Lawyers,” by California Chief Justice Ronald George and New Hampshire Chief Justice John T. Broderick Jr. that asks “how can we help those who are left to represent themselves in court?”

As a follow-up to that post, I want to share something else that Chief Justice Ronald M. George recently wrote.  “Access to Justice in Times of Fiscal Crisis” appears in the Fall, 2009 issue of the Golden Gate University Law Review.   Chief Justice George writes about the ‘historic reforms’ to the California court system: ‘trial court funding, court unification and facilities transfers’ and how these have “enhanced access to justice and provided a greater degree of accountability to the public.”

However, there are still problems.  As Chief Justice George writes:

“Courts in California currently operate more than 70 different case-management systems with about 130 variations.  These systems do not connect with one another and do not provide information across court and county jurisdictions…

We cannot afford to operate in an electronic Tower of Babel.”

Even though, Chief Justice George was only talking about the California courts’ case management systems, a ‘Tower of Babel’ frustration exists for anyone attempting to do legal research today.    Much of the legal research materials that we would consider primary aren’t freely available.  What is free often carries the warning that it can’t be relied upon or isn’t official.  For every state, there are different vendor relationships when it comes to publishing the codes and in assertion of copyright over that material.

The concept behind Law.gov might help reduce some of the confusion.  Law.gov is “an effort to create a report documenting exactly what it would take to create a distributed registry and repository of all primary legal materials in the United States.”

For Law.gov to work, we need to create a national inventory of all primary legal materials, and then some.  This inventory will be a packing list of sorts, describing, detailing, and cataloging where one can find the laws of our Federal and State systems.  And, not just the materials that we would define as ‘primary’ — we would want to note the availability of those items that are created as part of that process (from briefs and filings of attorneys to congressional testimony, etc).

How do we create the inventory?  To create this list, we will need the collaboration of librarians and researchers across the country.  From the creation of the categories that we would use for collecting the information to the data entry itself, this will take a lot (a lot) of volunteer effort from all sorts of folks.

To test the process, we should start small and local.  Because we were fortunate enough to have NOCALL folks at the first Law.gov workshop, it will begin here.  NOCALL now has a task force dedicated to creating a micro-inventory, focusing on California materials.  We are using a shared spreadsheet and just beginning to fill out rows and columns.

Questions abound:  should we include this format, what about copyright assertions, etc.    For now, the approach is simple: if we can start populating the spreadsheet, we can hammer out the problems later.  In fact, that is exactly the point of the series of Law.gov workshops, co-hosted by Carl Malamud and a number of law schools throughout the country.   The issues that come up in the creation of an inventory should be shared and discussed.

Perhaps, you are intrigued by this and want to know more, do more.  For starters, watch the video from the Stanford workshop.  And, try to attend one of the Law.gov workshops this year.  If you want to help on the inventory, please let us know.   What NOCALL is starting can and should be replicated in other areas.

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