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In March, Mike Lissner wrote for this blog about the troubling state of access to case law – noting with dismay that most of the US corpus is not publicly available. While a few states make official cases available, most still do not, and neither does the federal government. At Ravel Law we’re building a new legal research platform and, like Mike, we’ve spent substantial time troubleshooting access to law issues. Here, we will provide some more detail about how official case law is created and share our recommendations for making it more available and usable. We focus in particular on FDsys – the federal judiciary’s effort in this space – but the ideas apply broadly.

The Problem

If you ask a typical federal court clerk, such as our friend Rose, Pacific_Reporterabout the provenance of case opinions you will only learn half the story. Rose can tell you that after she and her judge finish an opinion it gets sent to a permanent court staffer. After that the story that Rose knows basically ends. The opinion at this stage is in its “slip” opinion state, and only some time later will Rose see the “official” version – which will have a citation number, copy edits, and perhaps other alterations. Yet, it is only this new “official” version that may be cited in court. For Mike Lissner, for Ravel, and for many others, the crux of the access challenge lies in steps beyond Rose’s domain, beyond the individual court’s in fact – when a slip becomes an official opinion.

For years the federal government has outsourced the creation of official opinions, relying on Westlaw and Lexis to create and publish them. These publishers are handed slip opinions by court staff, provide some editing, assign citations and release official versions through their systems. As a result, access to case law has been de facto privatized, and restricted.

FDsys

Of late, however, courts are making some strides to change the nature of this system. The federal judiciary’s FDsys_bannerprimary effort in this regard is FDsys (and also see the 9th Circuit’s recent moves). But FDsys’s present course gives reason to worry that its goals have been too narrowly conceived to achieve serious benefit. This discourages the program’s natural supporters and endangers its chances of success.

We certainly count ourselves amongst FDsys’s strongest supporters, and we applaud the Judicial Conference for its quick work so far. And, as friends of the program, we want to offer feedback about how it might address the substantial skepticism it faces from those in the legal community who want the program to succeed but fear for its ultimate success and usability.

Our understanding is that FDsys’s primary goal is to provide free public access to court opinions. Its strategy for doing so (as inexpensively and as seamlessly as possible) seems to be to fully implement the platform at all federal courts before adding more functionality. This last point is especially critical. Because FDsys only offers slip opinions, which can’t be cited in court, its current usefulness for legal professionals is quite limited; even if every court used FDsys it would only be of marginal value. As a result, the legal community lacks incentive to lend its full, powerful, support to the effort. This support would be valuable in getting courts to adopt the system and in providing technology that could further reduce costs and help to overcome implementation hurdles.

Setting Achievable Goals

We believe that there are several key goals FDsys can accomplish, and that by doing so it will win meaningful support from the legal community and increase its end value and usage. With loftier goals (some modest, others ambitious), FDsys would truly become a world-class opinion publishing system. The following are the goals we suggest, along with metrics that could be used to assess them.

Goal

 Metrics

1. Comprehensive Access to Opinions - Does every federal court release every published and unpublished opinion?
  - Are the electronic records comprehensive in their historic reach?
 
2. Opinions that can be Cited in Court - Are the official versions of cases provided, not just the slip opinions?
  - And/or, can the version released by FDsys be cited in court?
 
3. Vendor-Neutral Citations - Are the opinions provided with a vendor-neutral citation (using, e.g., paragraph numbers)?
 
4. Opinions in File Formats that Enable Innovation - Are opinions provided in both human and machine-readable formats?
 
5. Opinions Marked with Meta-Data - Is a machine-readable language such as XML used to tag information like case date, title, citation, etc?
  - Is additional markup of information such as sectional breaks, concurrences, etc. provided?
 
6. Bulk Access to Opinions - Are cases accessible via bulk access methods such as FTP or an API?

 

The first three goals are the basic building blocks necessary to achieve meaningful open-access to the law. As Professor Martin of Cornell Law and others have chronicled, the open-access community has converged around these goals in recent years, and several states (such as Oklahoma) have successfully implemented them with very positive results.

Goals 3-6 involve the electronic format and storage medium used, and are steps that would be low-cost enablers of massive innovation. If one intention of the FDsys project is to support the development of new legal technologies, the data should be made accessible in ways that allow efficient computer processing. Word documents and PDFs do not accomplish this. PDFs, for example, are a fine format for archival storage and human reading, but computers don’t easily read them and converting PDFs into more usable forms is expensive and imperfect.

In contrast, publishing cases at the outset in a machine-readable Oliver_Wendell_Holmes_Jr_circa_1930-editformat is easy and comes at virtually no additional cost. It can be done in addition to publishing in PDF. Courts and the GPO already have electronic versions of cases and with a few mouse clicks could store them in a format that would inspire innovation rather than hamper it. The legal technology community stands ready to assist with advice and development work on all of these issues.

We believe that FDsys is a commendable step toward comprehensive public access to law, and toward enabling innovation in the legal space. Left to its current trajectory, however, it is certain to fall short of its potential. With some changes now, the program could be a home run for the entire legal community, ensuring that clerks like Rose can rest assured that the law as interpreted by her judge is accessible to everyone.

 

Nik and DanielDaniel Lewis and Nik Reed are graduates of Stanford Law School and the co-founders of Ravel Law, a legal search, analytics, and collaboration platform. In 2012, Ravel spun out of a Stanford University Law School, Computer Science Department, and Design School collaborative research effort focused on legal citation networks and information design. The Ravel team includes software engineers and data scientists from Stanford, MIT, and Georgia Tech. You can follow them on Twitter @ravellaw

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

VOX.latin. ignorance_of_the_law_excuses_no_one_card-p137531564186928160envwi_400At CourtListener, we are making a free database of court opinions with the ultimate goal of providing the entire U.S. case-law corpus to the world for free and combining it with cutting-edge search and research tools. We–like most readers of this blog–believe that for justice to truly prevail, the law must be open and equally accessible to everybody.

It is astonishing to think that the entire U.S. case-law corpus is not currently available to the world at no cost. Many have started down this path and stopped, so we know we’ve set a high goal for a humble open source project. From time to time it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on where we are and where we’d like to go in the coming years.

The current state of affairs

We’ve created a good search engine that can provide results based on a number of characteristics of legal cases. Our users can search for opinions by the case name, date, or any text that’s in the opinion, and can refine by court, by precedential status or by citation. The results are pretty good, but are limited based on the data we have and the “relevance signals” that we have in place.

A good legal search engine will use a number of factors (a.k.a. “relevance signals”) to promote documents to the top of their listings. Things like:

  • How recent is the opinion?
  • How many other opinions have cited it?
  • How many journals have cited it?
  • How long is it?
  • How important is the court that heard the case?
  • Is the case in the jurisdiction of the user?
  • Is the opinion one that the user has looked at before?
  • What was the subsequent treatment of the opinion?

And so forth. All of the above help to make search results better, and we’ve seen paid legal search tools make great strides in their products by integrating these and other factors. At CourtListener, we’re using a number of the above, but we need to go further. We need to use as many factors as possible, we need to learn how the factors interact with each other, which ones are the most important, and which lead to the best results.

A different problem we’re working to solve at CourtListener is getting primary legal materials freely onto the Web. What good is a search engine if the opinion you need isn’t there in the first place? We currently have about 800,000 federal opinions, including West’s second and third Federal Reporters, F.2d and F.3d, and the entire Supreme Court corpus. This is good and we’re very proud of the quality of our database–we think it’s the best free resource there is. Every day we add the opinions from the Circuit Courts in the federal system and the U.S. Supreme Court, nearly in real-time. But we need to go further: we need to add state opinions, and we need to add not just the latest opinions but all the historical ones as well.

This sounds daunting, but it’s a problem that we hope will be solved in the next few years. Although it’s taking longer than we would like, in time we are confident that all of the important historical legal data will make its way to the open Internet. Primary legal sources are already in the public domain, so now it’s just a matter of getting it into good electronic formats so that anyone can access it and anyone can re-use it. If an opinion only exists as unsearchable scanned versions, in bound books, or behind a pricey pay wall, then it’s closed to many people that should have access to it. As part of our citation identification project, which I’ll talk about next, we’re working to get the most important documents properly digitized.

Our citation identification project was developed last year by U.C. Berkeley School of Information students Rowyn McDonald and Karen Rustad to identify and cross-link any citations found in our database. This is a great feature that makes all the citations in our corpus link to the correct opinions, if we have them. For example, if you’re reading an opinion that has a reference to Roe v. Wade, you can click on the citation, and you’ll be off and reading Roe v. Wade. By the way, if you’re wondering how many Federal Appeals opinions cite Roe v. Wade, the number in our system is 801 opinions (and counting). If you’re wondering what the most-cited opinion in our system is, you may be bemused: With about 10,000 citations, it’s an opinion about ineffective assistance of legal counsel in death penalty cases, Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

A feature we’ll be working on soon will tie into our citation system to help us close any gaps in our corpus. Once the feature is done, whenever an opinion is cited that we don’t yet have, our users will be able to pay a small amount–one or two dollars–to sponsor the digitization of that opinion. We’ll do the work of digitizing it, and after that point the opinion will be available to the public for free.

This brings us to the next big feature we added last year: bulk data. Because we want to assist academic VOX.pile.of.paperresearchers and others who might have a use for a large database of court opinions, we provide free bulk downloads of everything we have. Like Carl Malamud’s Resource.org, (to whom we owe a great debt for his efforts to collect opinions and provide them to others for free and for his direct support of our efforts) we have giant files you can download that provide thousands of opinions in computer-readable format. These downloads are available by court and date, and include thousands of fixes to the Resource.org corpus. They also include something you can’t find anywhere else: the citation network. As part of the metadata associated with each opinion in our bulk download files, you can look and see which opinions it cites as well as which opinions cite it. This provides a valuable new source of data that we are very eager for others to work with. Of course, as new opinions are added to our system, we update our downloads with the new citations and the new information.

Finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention our hallmark feature: daily, weekly and monthly email alerts. For any query you put into CourtListener, you can request that we email you whenever there are new results. This feature was the first one we created, and one that we continue to be excited about. This year we haven’t made any big innovations to our email alerts system, but its popularity has continued to grow, with more than 500 alerts run each day. Next year, we hope to add a couple small enhancements to this feature so it’s smoother and easier to use.

The future

I’ve hinted at a lot of our upcoming work in the sections above, but what are the big-picture features that we think we need to achieve our goals?

We do all of our planning in the open, but we have a few things cooking in the background that we hope to eventually build. Among them are ideas for adding oral argument audio, case briefs, and data from PACER. Adding these new types of information to CourtListener is a must if we want to be more useful for research purposes, but doing so is a long-term goal, given the complexity of doing them well.

We also plan to build an opinion classifier that could automatically, and without human intervention, determine the subsequent treatment of opinions. Done right, this would allow our users to know at a glance if the opinion they’re reading was subsequently followed, criticized, or overruled, making our system even more valuable to our users.

In the next few years, we’ll continue building out these features, but as an open-source and open-data project, everything we do is in the open. You can see our plans on our feature tracker, our bugs in our bug tracker, and can get in touch in our forum. The next few years look to be very exciting as we continue building our collection and our platform for legal research. Let’s see what the new year brings!

 

lissnerMichael Lissner is the co-founder and lead developer of CourtListener, a project that works to make the law more accessible to all. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley’s School of Information, and when he’s not working on CourtListener he develops search and eDiscovery solutions for law firms. Michael is passionate about bringing greater access to our primary legal materials, about how technology can replace old legal models, and about open source, community-driven approaches to legal research.

 

carverBrian W. Carver is Assistant Professor at the U.C. Berkeley School of Information where he does ressearch on and teaches about intellectual property law and cyberlaw. He is also passionate about the public’s access to the law. In 2009 and 2010 he advised an I School Masters student, Michael Lissner, on the creation of CourtListener.com, an alert service covering the U.S. federal appellate courts. After Michael’s graduation, he and Brian continued working on the site and have grown the database of opinions to include over 750,000 documents. In 2011 and 2012, Brian advised I School Masters students Rowyn McDonald and Karen Rustad on the creation of a legal citator built on the CourtListener database.

 

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed. The information above should not be considered legal advice. If you require legal representation, please consult a lawyer.

There have been a series of efforts to create a national legislative data standard – one master XML format to which all states will adhere for bills, laws, and regulations.Those efforts have gone poorly.

Few states provide bulk downloads of their laws. None provide APIs. Although nearly all states provide websites for people to read state laws, they are all objectively terrible, in ways that demonstrate that they were probably pretty impressive in 1995. Despite the clear need for improved online display of laws, the lack of a standard data format and the general lack of bulk data has enabled precious few efforts in the private sector. (Notably, there is Robb Schecter’s WebLaws.org, which provides vastly improved experiences for the laws of California, Oregon, and New York. There was also a site built experimentally by Ari Hershowitz that was used as a platform for last year’s California Laws Hackathon.)

A significant obstacle to prior efforts has been the perceived need to create a single standard, one that will accommodate the various textual legal structures that are employed throughout government. This is a significant practical hurdle on its own, but failure is all but guaranteed by also engaging major stakeholders and governments to establish a standard that will enjoy wide support and adoption.

What if we could stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good? What if we ignore the needs of the outliers, and establish a “good enough” system, one that will at first simply work for most governments? And what if we completely skip the step of establishing a standard XML format? Wouldn’t that get us something, a thing superior to the nothing that we currently have?

The State Decoded
This is the philosophy behind The State Decoded. Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The State Decoded is a free, open source program to put legal codes online, and it does so by simply skipping over the problems that have hampered prior efforts. The project does not aspire to create any state law websites on its own but, instead, to provide the software to enable others to do so.

Still in its development (it’s at version 0.4), The State Decoded leaves it to each implementer to gather up the contents of the legal code in question and interface it with the program’s internal API. This could be done via screen-scraping off of an existing state code website, modifying the parser to deal with a bulk XML file, converting input data into the program’s simple XML import format, or by a few other methods. While a non-trivial task, it’s something that can be knocked out in an afternoon, thus avoiding the need to create a universal data format and to persuade Wexis to provide their data in that format.

The magic happens after the initial data import. The State Decoded takes that raw legal text and uses it to populate a complete, fully functional website for end-users to search and browse those laws. By packaging the Solr search engine and employing some basic textual analysis, every law is cross-referenced with other laws that cite it and laws that are textually similar. If there exists a repository of legal decisions for the jurisdiction in question, that can be incorporated, too, displaying a list of the court cases that cite each section. Definitions are detected, loaded into a dictionary, and make the laws self-documenting. End users can post comments to each law. Bulk downloads are created, letting people get a copy of the entire legal code, its structural elements, or the automatically assembled dictionary. And there’s a REST-ful, JSON-based API, ready to be used by third parties. All of this is done automatically, quickly, and seamlessly. The time elapsed varies, depending on server power and the length of the legal code, but it generally takes about twenty minutes from start to finish.

The State Decoded is a free program, released under the GNU Public License. Anybody can use it to make legal codes more accessible online. There are no strings attached.

It has already been deployed in two states, Virginia and Florida, despite not actually being a finished project yet.

State Variations
The striking variations in the structures of legal codes within the U.S. required the establishment of an appropriately flexible system to store and render those codes. Some legal codes are broad and shallow (e.g., Louisiana, Oklahoma), while others are narrow and deep (e.g., Connecticut, Delaware). Some list their sections by natural sort order, some in decimal, a few arbitrarily switch between the two. Many have quirks that will require further work to accommodate.

For example, California does not provide a catch line for their laws, but just a section number. One must read through a law to know what it actually does, rather than being able to glance at the title and get the general idea. Because this is a wildly impractical approach for a state code, the private sector has picked up the slack – Westlaw and LexisNexis each write their own titles for those laws, neatly solving the problem for those with the financial resources to pay for those companies’ offerings. To handle a problem like this, The State Decoded either needs to be able to display legal codes that lack section titles, or pointedly not support this inferior approach, and instead support the incorporation of third-party sources of title. In California, this might mean mining the section titles used internally by the California Law Revision Commission, and populating the section titles with those. (And then providing a bulk download of that data, allowing it to become a common standard for California’s section titles.)

Many state codes have oddities like this. The State Decoded combines flexibility with open source code to make it possible to deal with these quirks on a case-by-case basis. The alternative approach is too convoluted and quixotic to consider.

Regulations
There is strong interest in seeing this software adapted to handle regulations, especially from cash-strapped state governments looking to modernize their regulatory delivery process. Although this process is still in an early stage, it looks like rather few modifications will be required to support the storage and display of regulations within The State Decoded.

More significant modifications would be needed to integrate registers of regulations, but the substantial public benefits that would provide make it an obvious and necessary enhancement. The present process required to identify the latest version of a regulation is the stuff of parody. To select a state at random, here are the instructions provided on Kansas’s website:

To find the latest version of a regulation online, a person should first check the table of contents in the most current Kansas Register, then the Index to Regulations in the most current Kansas Register, then the current K.A.R. Supplement, then the Kansas Administrative Regulations. If the regulation is found at any of these sequential steps, stop and consider that version the most recent.

If Kansas has electronic versions of all this data, it seems almost punitive not to put it all in one place, rather than forcing people to look in four places. It seems self-evident that the current Kansas Register, the Index to Regulations, the K.A.R. Supplement, and the Kansas Administrative Regulations should have APIs, with a common API atop all four, which would make it trivial to present somebody with the current version of a regulation with a single request. By indexing registers of regulations in the manner that The State Decoded indexes court opinions, it would at least be possible to show people all activity around a given regulation, if not simply show them the present version of it, since surely that is all that most people want.

A Tapestry of Data
In a way, what makes The State Decoded interesting is not anything that it actually does, but instead what others might do with the data that it emits. By capitalizing on the program’s API and healthy collection of bulk downloads, clever individuals will surely devise uses for state legal data that cannot presently be envisioned.

The structural value of state laws is evident when considered within the context of other open government data.

Major open government efforts are confined largely to the upper-right quadrant of this diagram – those matters concerned with elections and legislation. There is also some excellent work being done in opening up access to court rulings, indexing scholarly publications, and nascent work in indexing the official opinions of attorneys general. But the latter group cannot be connected to the former group without opening up access to state laws. Courts do not make rulings about bills, of course – it is laws with which they concern themselves. Law journals cite far more laws than they do bills. To weave a seamless tapestry of data that connects court decisions to state laws to legislation to election results to campaign contributions, it is necessary to have a source of rich data about state laws. The State Decoded aims to provide that data.

Next Steps
The most important next step for The State Decoded is to complete it, releasing a version 1.0 of the software. It has dozens of outstanding issues – both bug fixes and new features – so this process will require some months. In that period, the project will continue to work with individuals and organizations in states throughout the nation who are interested in deploying The State Decoded to help them get started.

Ideally, The State Decoded will be obviated by states providing both bulk data and better websites for their codes and regulations. But in the current economic climate, neither are likely to be prioritized within state budgets, so unfortunately there’s liable to remain a need for the data provided by The State Decoded for some years to come. The day when it is rendered useless will be a good day.

Waldo Jaquith is a website developer with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is a News Challenge Fellow with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and runs Richmond Sunlight, an open legislative service for Virginia. Jaquith previously worked for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, for which he developed Ethics.gov, and is now a member of the White House Open Data Working Group.
[Editor's Note: For topic-related VoxPopuLII posts please see: Ari Hershowitz & Grant Vergottini, Standardizing the World's Legal Information - One Hackathon At a Time; Courtney Minick, Universal Citation for State Codes; John Sheridan, Legislation.gov.uk; and Robb Schecter, The Recipe for Better Legal Information Services. ]

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

Source: AALL Universal Citation Guide (First Edition).

In his recent post, Fastcase CEO Ed Walters called on American states to tear down the copyright paywall for statutes. States that assert copyright over public laws limit their citizens’ access to such laws and impede a free and educated society. Convincing states (and publishers) to surrender these claims, however, is going to take some time.

A parallel problem involves The Bluebook and the courts that endorse it as a citation authority. By requiring parties to cite to an official published version of a statutory code, the courts are effectively restricting participants in the legal research market. Nowhere is this more evident than in those states where the government has delegated the publishing of the official code to a private publisher, as is the situation in more than half of the states.  Thus, even if the state itself or another company, such as Justia, publishes the law online for free, a brief cannot cite to these versions of the code.

To remedy this problem, we (and others) propose applying a system of vendor neutral (universal) citation to all primary legal source material, starting with the state codes. Assigning a universal, uniform identifier for state codes will make them easier to find, use, and cite. While we do not expect an immediate endorsement from The Bluebook, we hope that once these citations find their way into the stream of information, people will use them and states will take notice. We think it’s time to bring disruptive technology to bear on the legal information industry.

About Universal Citation


“Universal citation” refers to a non-proprietary legal citation that is applied the instant a document is created. “Universal citation” is also called a “vendor-neutral,” “media-neutral,” or “public domain” citation. Universal citation has been adopted by sixteen U.S. states in order to cite caselaw, but universal citation has not yet been applied to statutes by any state. A review of universal citation processes for caselaw is helpful in understanding how we may apply universal citation to statutes.

Briefly, a case follows this process before appearing as an official reported decision:

When issuing a written decision, a court first releases a draft called a slip opinion, which is often posted on the court’s Website. Private publishers then republish the slip opinion in various legal databases. A party can cite the slip opinion using a variety of citation formats, depending on the database.

Afterwards, the court transmits the slip opinion to the jurisdiction’s Reporter of Decisions, who may be a member of the judicial system or a private company. The Reporter edits the opinions, and then collects and reprints them in a bound volume with a citation. To cite a particular page within a case, which is also referred to as pinpoint citation, a party cites the case name, the publication, the volume, and the specific page number that contains the cited content.

Before the advent of electronic publishing, these books were the primary source for legal research. And, while publishers still print cases in book format, the majority of users read the cases in digital form. However, opinions in online database lack physical pages. To address this, online publishers insert page numbers into the digital version of an opinion to correspond to page breaks in the print version. Thus, the pinpoint citation (or star pagination) for an opinion, whether in print or online, is the same.

Under most court rules, and Bluebook guidance, once the official opinion is published, the Reporter citation must be used (see Bluebook Rule 10.3.1).

The decisions are published by a private company, usually Thomson West, and anyone wanting to read them must license the material from the company. Thus, if you want to cite to judicial law, you must pay to access the Reporter’s opinions. (Public law libraries offer books and database access, but readers must visit the physical library to use their resources. Google Scholar also provides free access to official cases online, but they must pay to obtain and license the opinions. In other words, Google, not the end user, is paying for the access.)

Universal citation bypasses the private publisher, and allows courts to create official opinions immediately. Under this system, judges assign a citation to the case when they release it. They insert paragraph numbers into the body of the opinion to allow pinpoint citation. This way, the case is instantly citeable. There is no intermediary lag time between slip and official opinion where different publishers cite the case differently, and there is no need to license proprietary databases in order to read and cite the work. In the jurisdictions that have adopted this system, the court’s opinion is the final, official version. Private publishers may republish and add their own parallel citations, but in most jurisdictions the court does not require citation to private publishers’ versions. (However, Louisiana and Montana require parallel citation to the regional reporter.)

The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) developed the initial standards for vendor neutral citation formats. AALL published the Universal Citation Guide in 1999, and released an updated edition in 2004. The Bluebook adopted a similar scheme in Rule 10.3.3 – Public Domain Format. Under this format, a universal citation should include the following:

  • Year of decision
  • State’s 2-letter postal code
  • Court name abbreviation
  • Sequential number of the decision
  • “U” for unpublished cases
  • Pinpoint citation should reference the paragraph number, instead of the page number

The majority of states employing universal citation follow the AALL/Bluebook standard, but a few have adopted their own styles. (Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Ohio employ universal citation but use a different format than the AALL/Bluebook recommendation.)

Most states that use universal citation adopted it in the 1990s. Cornell Law Professor Peter Martin details these events in his article Neutral Citation, Court Websites, and Access to Authoritative Caselaw. Professor Ian Gallacher of Albany Law School has also written about the history of this movement in Cite Unseen: How Neutral Citation and Americas Law Schools Can Cure Our Strange Devotion to Bibliographical Orthodoxy and the Constriction of Open and Equal Access to the Law. To date, 16 states assign universal citations to their highest court opinions. (To date, Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming have adopted universal citation for caselaw.)  Illinois is the most recent state to adopt the measure (in June 2011), and the concept has been gaining traction in the legal blogosphere. John Joergensen at Rutgers-Camden School of Law started a cooperative effort called UniversalCitation.org this summer.

Universal Citation and State Codes

Applying universal citation to state statutes can provide the same benefits as to caselaw, making statutes easier to find and cite, and improving access. While all states publish some form of their laws online for the public, as Ed has noted, these versions of state laws are often burdened by copyright and licensing restrictions. With these restrictions in place, users are not free to reuse, remix, or republish law, resulting in stifled innovation and external costs associated with using poorly designed Websites that take longer to search.

Though the AALL provides guidance on universal citation for statutes, no state has adopted it. The Bluebook does not specifically reference universal forms of citations for statutes and generally requires citation to official code compilations. There are exceptions for the digital version of the official code, parallel citations to other sources, and the use of unofficial sources where they are the only available source. (Bluebook Rule 12 provides for citation to statutes, generally. The Bluebook addresses Internet sources in Rule 18.)

The AALL’s Universal Citation Guide provides a schema for citing statutes in a neutral format. Rules 305-307 lay out standardized code designations, numbering, and dating rules, and each state has a full description in the Appendices. Basically, the format uses the state postal code, abbreviations for the name of the statutes (Consolidated, Revised, etc.), and a date.

As a result, the universal citations look similar to the official citations.

The AALL universal citation uses a name abbreviation for the state name and the name of the statute compilation. AALL’s format does not use periods in the abbreviations. It also uses a different convention for the year. The Guide’s recommendation is to date the code by a “legislative event,” to make the date more precise. Using “current through” dating provides a timestamp for the version of the code being used. This approach is less ambiguous than listing simply the year.

States like California and Texas have very large, segmented code systems with more complicated official citation schemes. The AALL mirrors these with the universal version, giving each subject matter code an abbreviation similar to the one used by The Bluebook.

Universal citation does not designate whether the code version is annotated, and of course it does not mention the publisher of the source.

Experimenting with Universal Citation

Justia is now applying the AALL’s universal citation to the code compilations on our site. We add this citation to the most granular instance of the code citation, along with a statement identifying and explaining it. So far, we’ve added citations to the state codes of Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, and South Dakota.

We started with Hawaii. The official citation and the universal citation are fairly similar:

Official: Haw. Rev. Stat. § 5-9 (2010)
Universal: HI Rev Stat § x-x (2010 Reg Sess)

This is how the code looks on the Hawaii Legislature’s site:

This is how the code section looks on Justia. We added the citation right above the text of the statute.

On our site, the full citation is visible, so readers can quickly identify and cite to it.  The “What’s This?” link next to the citation explains the universal citation.

We used the Legislature’s site to determine the date.

We also added the universal citation to the title tags. This allows search engine users to see the universal citation in their search results. It makes the search results more readable, because the text of the statute name appears next to the citation. For example, compare a search for “Haw Rev Stat 5-9″

with “HI Rev Stat 5-9″:

With the search results for the universal citation (properly tagged), more information about that citation is presented. This helps the user quickly identify and digest the best search results.

We hope to accomplish three objectives by attaching universal citations to our codes. First, we want to give people an easy way to cite the code without having to look at proprietary publications. Not all citation goes into legal briefs or other documents that require formal citation to “official” sources listed by The Bluebook. The AALL universal citation scheme is easy to read and understand, and uses familiar abbreviations (like postal codes). Providing a citation right on the page of the code section will help people talk about, use, and cite to code sections without having to access “official” sources behind a paywall.

Second, we hope to demonstrate that universal citation can be applied in an easy and straightforward manner. The AALL has already developed a rigorous standard for universal citation; we are happy to use it and not reinvent the wheel. Legal folks here at Justia researched the AALL citation and the proper year/date information, and programmers applied the citation to the corpus. Anyone can do this, including the states.

Third, we want to encourage the adoption and widespread use of vendor-neutral citation schemes. There’s been a lot of talk about vendor-neutral citation for caselaw, and we are excited by efforts like UniversalCitation.org. Applying these principles to state codes will help get universal citation into the stream of legal information online. Just seeing the citation and the “What’s This?” page next to it will introduce readers to the concept. The more people use universal citations for state statutes, the more states will be forced to examine their reliance on third party publishers as the “official” source.

Next Steps

We plan to apply the universal citation to all of the codes in our corpus, but we have encountered some obstacles to achieving this for all 50 states. First, some of the codes are quite large and difficult to parse. Ari Hershowitz has documented his efforts to convert the California code into usable HTML. States like California, Texas, and New York will be more labor intensive. Second, the currency, or timestamp, is not always readily apparent on the state code site. With Idaho, I had to make a call to the Legislative Office to find out exactly when they last updated the code.

Source: AALL Universal Citation Guide (First Edition).

The third, and perhaps most troubling, issue is the “unofficial” status of the online state code repositories. With the exception of a few states (see Colorado), the codes hosted on the states’ own Websites are papered over with disclaimers about their authenticity. While I understand the preference for “official” sources when citing a code, there seems to be no good reason why the official statutes of any state are not available online, for free, for everyone. These are the laws we must obey and to which we are held accountable. Does the public really deserve something less than official version? The states are passing the buck by disclaiming all responsibility for publishing their own laws, and relying on third-party publishers, which charge taxpayers to view the laws that the taxpayers paid for. I hope that as we apply a universal citation to our state statutes, the law will become more usable for the public. By taking disruptive action and applying these rules to our large corpus of data, we hope that more people will see the statutes and cite using universal principles, and that the states will take notice.

We have assigned a universal citation to the first few states as a proof of concept. We will also be sharing our efforts by supplying copies of the code with the universal citations included for bulk download at public.resource.org. As we move forward with the remaining 46 states, we would love your input.  Comment here or contact me directly with your thoughts.

Peace and Onward.

[Editor's Note: For other VoxPopuLII posts on universal citation and the status of content in legal repositories, see Ivan Mokanov's post on the Canadian neutral citation standard, and John Joergensen's post on authentication of digital legal repositories.]

Courtney Minick is an attorney and product manager at Justia, where she works on free law and open access initiatives. She can be found pushing her agenda at the Justia Law, Technology, and Legal Marketing Blog and on Twitter: @caminick.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-Chief is Robert Richards, to whom queries should be directed. The statements above are not legal advice or legal representation. If you require legal advice, consult a lawyer. Find a lawyer in the Cornell LII Lawyer Directory.

Farmland outside Matatiele

My father was, as was his father before him, a country lawyer in a remote but very beautiful part of South Africa, in the foothills of the Maluti mountains on the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Prominent in his legal office near the Magistrate’s Court were shelves of leather bound volumes of South African statutes, cases, and law reports, which I found impressive, with their gold blocking on red spines. Even back then, South African lawyers were well supplied with legal publications, the production of which dated back to the mid-19th century, when a Dutch immigrant, Jan Carel Juta (who was married to Karl Marx’s sister) published the first law reports. This means that the legal profession in South Africa has access to a century and a half of legal records, something of undoubted value, given that many African countries have no legal publications at all.

If it was a court day, one could hear from my father’s office the hubbub of conversations in Sotho, Xhosa, English, and Afrikaans floating down the road from outside the Magistrate’s Court, where blanket-clad Sotho men down from the mountains had tied up their horses at a hitching post alongside police vans and farmer’s trucks.

Rural settlements

This was Wild West country in the 19th century — and cross-border cattle rustling cases continue to figure large — but when I grew up, in the wake of the Second World War, it presented itself as a quiet village, in a prosperous farming area surrounded by very large ‘trust lands’ (in colonial- and apartheid-speak) of traditional Black peasant communities, where the place names were those of the presiding chiefs. This naming was a symptom of the colonial manipulation of the legal system, described by Mahmood Mamdani, to impose an autocratic and patriarchal ‘customary’ system, a heritage that lingers on in a democratic South Africa. In a legal practice like my father’s, there was a startling dichotomy between the well-paid work done for the prosperous white community with its commercial- and property-law needs, and the customary-law and criminal cases that came from the overwhelmingly larger black communities, dependent on legal aid or paying their fees in small cash installments to a clerk in a back office.

Village traders

I was thus aware at a young age of conflicting values at the intersection between western concepts of the law, its formal and Latinate expression and punctilious enforcement, and the needs of rural black communities; the problematic role that language played in the adversarial ritual of criminal court procedure, alien to many participants; and the difficulties inherent in responding to the needs of very large and widely geographically dispersed poor and disenfranchised communities. The stories my father told about his days in court as a defending attorney were often tales of incomprehension compounded by mistranslation.

This rural setting provides a vivid and useful map of divergent needs for access to legal information in the complexity of an African context. In fact this setting throws a stark spotlight on issues of legal access that are easily obscured in the global North. In an urban setting in South Africa, the issues would be different respecting details, but generally the same: the question is how to bridge the gap between the formalities and rituals of colonially-based and imported legal discourse and the ways in which the legal system impacts on the lives of most of the population. In this context, how does one transform into action Nick Holmes’s concerns, as expressed in his VoxPopuLII blog, about making the law accessible, i.e., suited to meeting the needs of citizens and lawyers in less privileged practices, in an appropriate language and format? Or, to use Isabel Moncion’s distinction between the law and justice, how does one communicate the law in such a way as to reach the people who need the information? And lastly — of vital importance in an African setting where resources are scarce — how does one make such a publishing enterprise sustainable?

I do not come to this discussion with a legal training. I would have become a lawyer, no doubt, like the generations of my father’s family, but 1950s gender stereotypes got in the way. Instead, I became an academic publisher, and then a consultant and researcher on the potential of digital media in Africa. This trajectory gives a particular coloration to my concerns for access to legal information in Africa: my approach brings together an acknowledgement of the need for professional skills and sustainability with an awareness of the serious limitations of the current publishing regime in providing comprehensive access to legal information.

Law publishing in South Africa

The fact that South Africa has a well-established legal publishing sector sets that nation apart from the rest of Africa. The strength of the legal publishing industry is a reflection not only of South Africa’s prosperity, but also of the distinctiveness of the South African legal system, a fusion of Romano-Dutch and British legal traditions. The uniqueness of this system meant that South African law publishing could not rely on purely British sources, and gave local South African legal publishers a market not subject to competition from Britain. However, the nature of this legal system also gave it a tendency, at least in its early stages, towards a particularly impenetrable mode of expression, fueled by the Latinisms of its Roman roots.

Lawyers in practice, the legal departments of big companies, and the courts are relatively well served by the South African legal publishing industry, and the system is self-sustaining. However, there are problems. One is that the industry still clings to print-based business models. The focus is on the readership that can pay and on the topics that are of interest to this readership. The danger resides in seeing this situation as sufficient: in seeing the relatively wealthy market being served as the whole market, and the narrow range of publications produced as satisfying the totality of publication needs. With the South African legal profession still struggling to diversify out of white male dominance, this is an important issue.

As global media have consolidated in the last few decades, South African legal publishers have shown a decreasing willingness to try to find ways of addressing commercially marginal markets. This has meant that, although mainstream legal publishers in South Africa have long produced digital publications, there is reliance on a high-price market model. In other countries one might talk of a failure to address niche markets, but in South Africa it is the mass of the population who are marginalised by this business model. A smaller specialist publisher, Simon Sefton’s Siber Ink, seems more aware than the bigger players of the need for accessible language and affordable prices for legal resources, as well as active social media engagement to create debates about key community issues.

Some hope of solutions to the question of access by otherwise marginalised readers lies in the development, on the margins of the publishing industry, of innovative smaller players leveraging digital media to reach new readerships, often using open source models that combine the free and the paid for.

Access to legal information – The role of government

The main efforts being put into access to legal information in South Africa are quite rightly focusing on government-generated information, which, being taxpayer funded, should be in the public domain and is indeed available on the South African Government Information site. Progress is being made by the Southern African Legal Information Institute (SAFLII) in improving the accessibility of primary legal resources, and success would mean the availability of a substantial body of information that would then be available for interpretation and translation.

Beyond this, government practice in ensuring this level of access is patchy. Some departments are good at posting legislation on their Websites, others less so. Government Gazettes, although theoretically accessible to all, can be difficult to find and navigate; and the collation of legislative amendments with the original Acts is also patchy. There is — at least in theory — an acceptance of the need in government for an open government approach, but the fact that there is a publishing industry serving the profession and the courts ironically reduces the pressure to achieve this goal.

South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

There is a danger, however, when government sees the print-publication profit model as the natural and only way of producing sustainable publications. This was brought home in 1998 with a very important publication: the Report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). This sad and salutary story is worth telling in some detail.  But first, a disclaimer: I was working at the time for the company that distributed the Report, and I was actively involved in securing the bid from publishers, although I was not supportive of the business model that was imposed in the end.

Five volumes of testimony, analysis, and findings from the Commission were produced to high production standards. The compilers saw the archival material that lay behind these volumes as ‘the Commission’s greatest legacy’ and the published volumes as ‘a window on this incredible resource, offering a road map to those who wish to travel into our past’ (p.2).  The Department of Justice, working on the stereotypical view of how publication works, insisted that production and printing costs had to be fully recovered. The Department set a high price to be charged by the appointed distributor, Juta Law and Academic Publishers.

The second set of problems arose with the digital version of the publication that Juta had offered to develop. The digital division of the legal publisher insisted on high prices. It was this inappropriate digital business model that created a row in the press. Then, a ‘pirate’ version of the publication was produced by the developer of the TRC Website, who claimed that he had the rights to a free online product. Public opinion was firmly behind the idea that the digital version should be free and that the publisher was profiteering out of South Africa’s pain.

In the end, hardly any copies of the Report were sold. The lesson was a hard one for a publishing company: digital content that is seen as part of the national heritage cannot be subjected to high-price commercial strategies.

The full text of the TRC Report is now online on the South African Government Information Website.

The LRC Website

Leaping the divide – Law and land

What is more difficult and diffuse is the route to providing access to really useful information that could help communities engage with the impact of legislation on their lives, whether the issue be housing policy or land tenure legislation, gender rights or press freedom.

If we go back to my initial example of rural communities and their access to the law, there is a dauntingly wide range of issues at stake — questions of individual agency, gender rights, fair labour practice, property rights and access to land, food sustainability, and a number of human rights issues – including legislative process as the ANC government implements the Communal Land Rights Act of 2004. In Matatiele, the village in which my father practised, there has been a long-drawn-out dispute about provincial boundaries, with the community challenging the legislative process in the Constitutional Court.

Questions of access to this kind of information are addressed in an ecosystem broader than the conventional publishing industry. NGOs and research units based in universities and national research councils address the wider concerns of community justice; using a variety of business models, these organizations produce a range of publications and work closely with communities. In the case of the Communal Land Rights Act, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) supported a Constitutional Court challenge and published a book on the Act and its problems. The LRC, like other organisations of its kind, makes booklets, brochures, and reports freely available online. These efforts tend to be donor-funded and, increasingly, donors like the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) insist that publications be distributed under Creative Commons licenses. In the case of books published by commercial publishers, this means an open access digital version, and a print version for sale.

A major problem in providing commentary on legislative issues for the general public is that of ensuring a lack of bias. In the case of the Communal Land Rights Act — as well as for the other critical justice issues that it covers – the LRC explicitly aimed to provide a comprehensive insight into the issues for experts and the general public; the Centre accordingly placed the full text of its submissions to the hearings as well as answering affidavits on a CD-ROM and online. It also produces a range of resources, online text, and audio, targeted at communities.

Similar publication efforts are undertaken by a number of other NGOs and research centres — such as the Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape and the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town — on a wide range of issues. These organizations’ publishing activities tend to be interdisciplinary and the general practice is to place reports and other publications online for free download. There is a growing wave, in scholarly publishing in particular, to seek a redefinition of what constitutes ‘proper’ publishing; this process has yielded the notion of a continuum between scholarly (and professional) work and the ‘translation’ of this work into more accessible versions.

A useful strategic exercise would be to tag and aggregate the legal publishing contributions of NGOs and research centres — as these resources are often difficult to track, or hidden deep in university Websites — preferably with social networking spaces for discussion and evaluation.

Sustainability models

These civil society publishers are generally dependent on donor funding. What is needed is to recognise them as part of the publishing ecosystem. The question is how to create publishing models that can offer longer-term sustainability that might work beyond a well-resourced country like South Africa. The most promising and sustainable future looks to be in small and innovative digital companies using open source publishing models, offering free content as well as value-added services for sale. Examples are currently mostly to be found in textbook and training models, like the Electric Book Works Health Care series, which offers free content online, with payment for print books, training, and accreditation.

What is clear is that multi-pronged solutions must be found over time to the question of how to bridge the divide in African access to reliable and relevant legal information, and that a promising site for these solutions is the intersection between research and civil society organisations and community activists.

Eve GrayEve Gray is an Honorary Research Associate in the Centre for Educational Technology at the University of Cape Town and an Associate in the IP Law and Policy Research Unit. She is a specialist in scholarly communications in the digital age, working on strategies for leveraging information technologies to grow African voices in an unequal global environment.

Photos: Eve Gray CC BY

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-Chief is Robert Richards, to whom queries should be directed. The statements above are not legal advice or legal representation. If you require legal advice, consult a lawyer. Find a lawyer in the Cornell LII Lawyer Directory.