Where Have All Our Cowboys Gone? Authentication of Online Legal Resources

John Joergensen, a reference librarian at Rutgers-Camden, writes about the on-going issue of authentication of digital legal resources on Cornell’s VoxPopuLII.  His discussion touches on several different issues entwined in the authentication bundle, including the idea of reputation and “perceived trustworthiness” that the all too few commercial vendors enjoy and how to gain similar ground for free resources.  His post reminded me of a lecture that Bob Berring gave to our Advanced Legal Research in which he likened these veteran vendors to Tinkerbell.  The legal community believes in their veracity and authenticity and so they continue to dominate the digital landscape.  It’s high time we created room for more Tinkerbells to spread their online legal resource dust.

At present, AALL’s Electronic Legal Information Access and Citation Committee (ELIACC) is working on an update to their 2007 State-by-State Report on Authentication of Online Legal Resources.  As a participant in the update, I was asked to re-evaluate that state of West Virginia’s online primary legal materials.  In their case, while the courts and legislature provide free access to their decisions and bills/laws, they also explicitly state these versions are unofficial and no overt steps toward authentication are apparent.  I am interested to see how the terrain may have changed for other states.  Stay tuned…..

Authentication: The Next Frontier in Online Government Resources

This is cross-posted on the freegovinfo.info blog:

On a daily basis I visit various court and other government websites, often to locate recent opinions, regulations, or agency decisions.  It is a common practice for law librarians and for any researcher who wants very recent sources or does not have access to commercial databases.  Admittedly it is far less often that I consider whether the case I just downloaded is an authentic representation of the court’s decision.

But consider these two examples.  The first from the California Courts website and the second from the website for the First Circuit Court of Appeals:

“The Official Reports page is primarily intended to provide effective public access to all of California’s precedential appellate decisions; it is not intended to function as an alternative to commercial computer-based services and products for comprehensive legal research.”

“Although every effort is made to ensure that the information contained on this site is correct and timely, the First Circuit does not warrant its accuracy. Portions of the information may be incorrect or not current. The information contained on this site should not be cited as legal authority.”

In 2007 the American Association of Law Librarians completed a survey of states’ online statutes, regulations and case law to determine which states, if any, were deeming their online material to be official and/or authentic.  The survey, “State-by-State Report on Authentication of Online Legal Resources,” is available from the Washington Affairs Office of AALL.  Survey authors Richard Matthews and Mary Alice Baish concluded that while many states considered the primary legal material that they put online to be official, no state had taken steps to authenticate those materials. 

In a world where online research is becoming the norm, are courts (and other government websites) really keeping up with the needs of the people they serve by not offering official and authenticated versions of their opinions online?