Tough Love: Internet Grass Roots Movement Buries a Federal In-House Legal Search Service

Searcher, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Tough Love: Internet Grass Roots Movement Buries a Federal In-House Legal Search Service


On a roll from its victory at getting SEC EDGAR reports onto the Internet, Ralph Nader's Taxpayer Assets Project (TAP) launched a new grass roots effort to open access to the federal government's internal full-text legal search service, Juris. TAP has had a longstanding campaign to access the Juris service, but the success of their campaign may have led to the service's demise.

The Department of Justice's Juris system carried full-text statutes, federal regulations, foreign treaties, legislative histories, and case law through a connection built and maintained by West Publishing Company. Juris ran on software developed by the U.S. government and had some 15,000 government employee users. Public access was not available directly to the Juris service, though most of the material on the service appeared on Westlaw or in Mead's LEXIS service as well as other electronic and print venues. Juris users paid around $73/connecthour, much less than Westlaw and Mead charges.

In July 1993, TAP sent a letter to the Attorney General and six members of Congress signed by 295 lawyers, computer professionals, librarians, and others. The letter charged that the Justice Department's contract with West for Juris service allowed West to co-mingle its editorial enhancements (headnotes, summaries, indexing, etc.) in such a manner as to copyright both the public domain and privately copyrighted portions. The result, according to TAP, was to give West unfair ownership of federal legal records through disallowing public access to the leased back Juris versions.

West defended its leasing arrangement with the federal government as standard practice for software and electronic databases. They also pointed out that Juris did not supply them with any data; instead Juris took a subset of data collected by West from courts and agencies around the country as part of their regular data procedures. Of course, West documents themselves carry notices that the original court opinions and other government-produced material are public domain. The Justice Department reportedly initiated discussions with the Government Printing Office (GPO) and the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) about providing non-proprietary information from Juris to the public. …

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