John B. West and other non lawyers who have revolutionized legal research

The latest issue of The American Journal of Legal History just landed on my desk.  It includes an article by Robert M. Jarvis, “John B. West:  Founder of the West Publishing Company.”   There are all sorts of fascinating facts about Mr. West in the article, including (and maybe everyone knows this but me) how he called for uniform citation way back in 1908.  From a footnote:

. . . [West] calls attention to the necessary multiplication of citations caused by the different unofficial publication of reports . . . [and] contends that reports of decisions are simply official documents which should be filed in numerical order and cited with reference to their numbers.  Under this system no matter how many decisions or systems of reporting be adopted each case can be readily found and cited by reference to this official number, entirely regardless of the volume and page of the particular publication.

The article details West’s (the man) falling out with West (the company).  “John called for the elimination of unofficial case reporters . . . [and] likewise derided the West digest system . . . ”

In his conclusion to the article, Professor Jarvis remarks:

In thinking about John, two matters particularly stand out.  One is the pure randomness of his life.  If he had not moved to St. Paul and gotten a sales job with D.D. Merrill, he would not have met the lawyers he did and ended up inventing the case reporter and the digest.  It is possible, of course, that someone else might have done these things, but if not, the legal system would have developed along very different lines.

Second, there is the question of how a man who did not go to college, and was untrained in law, was able to devise methods that revolutionized legal research and, by extension, legal practice.  Why was no judge or lawyer able to see what he saw?  Perhaps the answer is that they were not looking, or perhaps it took an outsider to see what the cognoscenti could not.

This question of how a non lawyer can be such a leader in legal research struck me last quarter while we were teaching advanced legal research.  Two of our guest speakers are true revolutionaries in legal research — Carl Malamud from public.resource.org and Tom Bruce from the Cornell Legal Information Institute.   Both men are leading the free law revolution (and if Law.gov takes off, legal research will never be the same), and neither are lawyers.  Or law librarians, for that matter.

Here’s the cite to the article:

Robert M. Jarvis, “John B. West: Founder of the West Publishing Company,” The American Journal of Legal History, Volume L, Number 1, pages 1-22, January 2008-2010 (2010)

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

A big day for Free Law

See Google post below.  And stay tuned for another announcement tomorrow, which will be yet another big day for Free Law.   And we here at Stanford have something cooking too.  Stay tuned.

Take a look at this posting and its comments too, from the Supreme Court of Texas Blog.

 

 

http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/11/finding-laws-that-govern-us.html

 

Finding the laws that govern us
 
11/17/2009 09:05:00 AM

As many of us recall from our civics lessons in school, the United States is a common law country. That means when judges issue opinions in legal cases, they often establish precedents that will guide the rulings of other judges in similar cases and jurisdictions. Over time, these legal opinions build, refine and clarify the laws that govern our land. For average citizens, however, it can be difficult to find or even read these landmark opinions. We think that’s a problem: Laws that you don’t know about, you can’t follow � or make effective arguments to change.

Starting today, we’re enabling people everywhere to find and read full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts using Google Scholar. You can find these opinions by searching for cases (like Planned Parenthood v. Casey), or by topics (like desegregation) or other queries that you are interested in. For example, go to Google Scholar, click on the “Legal opinions and journals” radio button, and try the query separate but equal. Your search results will include links to cases familiar to many of us in the U.S. such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, which explore the acceptablity of “separate but equal” facilities for citizens at two different points in the history of the U.S. But your results will also include opinions from cases that you might be less familiar with, but which have played an important role.

We think this addition to Google Scholar will empower the average citizen by helping everyone learn more about the laws that govern us all. To understand how an opinion has influenced other decisions, you can explore citing and related cases using the Cited by and Related articles links on search result pages. As you read an opinion, you can follow citations to the opinions to which it refers. You can also see how individual cases have been quoted or discussed in other opinions and in articles from law journals. Browse these by clicking on the “How Cited” link next to the case title. See, for example, the frequent citations for Roe v. Wade, for Miranda v. Arizona (the source of the famous Miranda warning) or for Terry v. Ohio (a case which helped to establish acceptable grounds for an investigative stop by a police officer).

As we worked to build this feature, we were struck by how readable and accessible these opinions are. Court opinions don’t just describe a decision but also present the reasons that support the decision. In doing so, they explain the intricacies of law in the context of real-life situations. And they often do it in language that is surprisingly straightforward, even for those of us outside the legal profession. In many cases, judges have gone quite a bit out of their way to make complex legal issues easy to follow. For example, in Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court justices present a fascinating and easy-to-follow debate on the legality of internment of natural born citizens based on their ancestry. And in United States v. Ramirez-Lopez, Justice Kozinski, in his dissent, illustrates the key issue of the case using an imagined good-news/bad-news dialogue between the defendant and his attorney.

We would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the work of several pioneers, who have worked on making it possible for an average citizen to educate herself about the laws of the land: Tom Bruce (Cornell LII), Jerry Dupont (LLMC), Graham Greenleaf and Andrew Mowbray (AustLII), Carl Malamud (Public.Resource.Org), Daniel Poulin (LexUM), Tim Stanley (Justia), Joe Ury (BAILII), Tim Wu (AltLaw) and many others. It is an honor to follow in their footsteps. We would also like to acknowledge the judges who have built this cathedral of justice brick by brick and have tried to make it accessible to the rest of us. We hope Google Scholar will help all of us stand on the shoulders of these giants.

Posted by Anurag Acharya, Distinguished Engineer

10 Essential Web Sites for Litigators

Genie Tyburski at The Virtual Chase has put together this great list, and we’re pleased and delighted to see Justia listed as a “top 10” web site for litigators.

Justia: Relatively new to the legal Web scene, Justia deserves mention for several reasons. It stands alone in offering a free keyword-searchable database of federal district court filings. You will find court opinions from 2004 to present as well as other filings. (See also: Free Case Law Databases)

Other offerings worthy of special mention include a database of federal appellate court opinions, RSS feeds for monitoring civil court filings by the type of lawsuit (Select any available topic and go to the bottom of the page to find the feeds.), RSS feeds for tracking federal regulations, and a blog search engine for law-related blogs.