Legal Research in the Age of Open Law

By Ard, Constance | Online, September-October 2010 | Go to article overview

Legal Research in the Age of Open Law


Ard, Constance, Online


Although simple in theory, the concept of free or open law is complex in execution. Its ultimate goal: Make the documents and decisions created within government resources, such as the judiciary and federal agencies, freely available to the public user. A review of the U.S. governmental structure and its effect on the legal system clarifies one reason for the complexity of execution.

* Judiciary: Precedents created by opinions at all levels

* Executive: Agency decisions and regulatory enforcement

* Legislative: The laws, aka statutes

These three branches repeat throughout all 50 states and the country's six territories and outlying areas, creating hundreds of differing information types and sources. You could accomplish the task of open law execution, but barely, if the only layer of complexity was the producing parties. Unfortunately, you must also factor in technology.

OPEN LAW PRECEDENTS

For the practicing attorney working to keep legal research costs in line and Joe Citizen just trying to access public documents of interest, open law is a vital tool. The advent of the World Wide Web was a breakthrough in opening access to more people. However, open law content did not begin with the World Wide Web.

The Supreme Court of the United States was an early adopter of open access to its content. "In 1990, the Court cooperated with the Hermes project ... to make the Court's opinions freely available ..." ("The Movement for Open Access Law," by Michael W. Carroll. Lewis & Clark Law Review, pp. 741-760. Vol. 10, No. 4, winter 2006). However, FTP an early internet access protocol, was difficult for the average person to navigate.

Along came the World Wide Web and two professors who saw the potential of open law resources. Peter Martin and Thomas Bruce launched the Cornell Legal Information Institute (LII) in 1992. Their first action was to make the Hermes project information more accessible through the WWW protocol. The LII took a focused approach to providing access to legal materials. This approach resulted in a central resource for legal researchers seeking access to the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, and Supreme Court Opinions.

The movement gained the notice of Congress. House Speaker Newt Gingrich took a proactive role in 1995 to budget funds used by the Library of Congress to create THOMAS, now the central source for federal legislation.

With these two resources, all three branches of government had a venue to provide open law access. The proliferation of subsequent sites is impressive, but the focus of this article is the ever-evolving need to improve the findability of specific information contained in these repositories.

The next major milestone in accessibility to public legal information came from an initiative of the 2000 White House under the Clinton administration. First.gov was a 90-day indexing of the executive materials on the internet. First.gov continues to evolve, now in its current iteration as USA.gov.

THE COMMERCIAL SECTOR

For 30 years, commercial publishers, such as Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw, dominated online access to legal materials, both primary and secondary. The complex and efficient searching capability of the products from commercial vendors is undeniable. For 30 years, these providers have built content stores that are unmatched, and they have supported the access to that content through complex search algorithms that allow users to retrieve relevant information. As they now work to protect their market share, they have introduced another level of complexity, one that parallels the technology issues related to open access.

In November 2009, Google announced its Google Scholar expansion to Legal Opinions and Journals. This allows a researcher to search within a specific data bucket within the Google storage space for legal materials. Google has made complex search beyond simple for the average user. …

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