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The facts, at least, are simple:  Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, claimed that Federal law lets him arrest suspected illegal immigrants during street sweeps.  He provided a press handout that quotes extensively from “8 USC 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv)(b)(iii)”. He said that this text gives him authority to continue those arrests, despite the fact that Federal officials had explicitly rescinded an agreement that once allowed him to do so.

He claimed the LII as the source of that law. There is no such sub-section in the US Code. No such text appears on our web site, or ever has — a fact easily discovered by reporters who went to our site.  Instead, the text in Arpaio’s presser was made up by an anti-immigration group in Connecticut.  It looks awfully official, though.  You can read this story in newspapers and blogs here, here, and here — and you probably should, because this is the Internet, and who’s to say I’m not making things up, too?  I thought Stephen Lemons’ story in the Phoenix New Times gave a good account of the legal-information side of the story.

I spent last Friday morning dealing with media reaction to all this. I was delighted.  I was delighted that Sheriff Arpaio thinks that the public finds us so authoritative that he can use the LII’s name as the shiny scaffolding for a Big Lie. In fact, I wanted to call my mother and tell her that the LII had finally reached that pinnacle of American success, the name brand, just like the legal-information services that the big guys use.  It is often hard for me to avoid cracking wise.

Not so this time. I am proud, seriously proud, that we have helped shed light on a blatant abuse of authority.

Sheriff Joe has powerfully reminded us of why we do what we have done for the last 17 years.  We do it because we believe that everybody should be able to find out for themselves what the law is, without bias or interference.   That goes for the people of Maricopa County, for Joe Arpaio, and for journalists. It goes for the Border Patrol officers at the Field Operations Training Center in Glynco, Georgia — where one of our donors tells us that LII resources are regularly used as part of the curriculum.

We can’t know how many of the 100,000 people who visit our web site each day come here because they are looking at an official statement and saying, “Wait a minute — that can’t be right.”  I think that’s rare.  I hope that it’s not often necessary.  But just as the power of the Internet is an accretion of small things, so too the power of a service like ours is described by a lot of little stories about people, and what they can do, and what they know that they can do.

That is not a noisy drama.  It shouldn’t be.    It is not as glamorous to publish the boring details of 17 USC 107  as it is to dress up in a mask, cape, and green tights, call yourself a “copyfighter“, and set off to save the world.  Instead, we strive to be accurate, timely, and boring.  The fairy tale of how Robin Hood Beats the Bad Sheriff and Saves the Little Guys is exciting. Hundreds or thousands of ordinary  stories about how reading and understanding a government regulation can help a family-owned business are not — unless, of course, it’s your family, and your livelihood.  The five of us are in the quiet, mostly invisible business of putting the law where everyone can find and understand it, each for her own small purpose. That runs both wide and deep.

Four centuries ago Sir Edward Coke took the radical step of translating law books and writing commentary on English law in English, rather than the “law French” that was the language of lawyers.  He did so in order that “the nobility and gentry of the realm…may understand … seeing
that ignorance of the law is no excuse.” It was Coke’s Institutes that formed the basis of John Adams’ and Thomas Jefferson’s legal training. All of us have heard the phrase about ignorance of the law. Few know the part of the quote that talks about understanding, or about a history in which law was something that most could not read.

We’re with Coke.  People need to be able read and understand the law.  The issue of what Joe knows, and what Joe claims he knows, and what average Joes can know, is too important for things to be otherwise.

[NB:  I’m compelled to tell you that the opinions expressed here are strictly my own and not those of the Legal Information Institute, the Cornell Law School, or Cornell University. Or my mother, even if she was mentioned in this post; she’s a nice lady who mostly thinks well of authority. They are most certainly not those of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.]