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by Anne Washington

When the United States first mandated the preservation of government proceedings, clerks wrote in bound blank books. In 1789, Congress passed a law providing for the “safe-keeping” of legislative and government documents (1 Stat. 68).

When the Cornell Legal Information Institute started, digital information was shared on CD-ROMs and 3-1/2 inch disks. In 1992, two people on a cold day in upstate New York turned on a server box to provide law on the Internet.

To celebrate the remarkable work of the Cornell Legal Information Institute in its 25th year and the 228th year of the first US Congress, this is a provocation about what we might celebrate in future.

Vannaver Bush in 1945 imagined a machine he called a Memex that would enable the instant retrieval of “trails” of memory. He briefly discussed how it could apply to the law: “The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions … The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest.” (Bush, 1945, p 8)

What features might be in a future legal Memex ?

Imagine that it is 2042 and the 50th anniversary of LII.

The Vice President is listening to a debate on the Senate floor about a bill related to a campaign issue. She tracks public opinion on the social media site Face-oogle, particularly noting what the Majority Leader’s constituents are saying. More importantly, she receives an automated predictive score from the Congressional Data & Budget Office (CDB) about which existing laws might be impacted by a proposed amendment.

She focuses on the predicted laws that meet her preferred portfolio factors. She realizes that this would change an important law. She requests 3-5 potential placements of the amendment in the United States Code and creates composite texts. After comparing the composite text with the official United States Code source, she is ready to spread the word.

The daughter of the first librarian in the White House notifies the Attorney General.

The Attorney General quickly turns to the Legal Information Institute which now tracks all USC citations and their use in case law. The law has been used in several appeals court cases. LII has a detailed description of a pending case before the US Supreme Court that is related to this law. The Attorney General specifically notes the cases that have appeared before the appeals courts associated with the Majority Leader’s state.

In a brief summary, the Attorney General gives legal advice about potential enforcement issues. The message contains the proposed amendment, as it would appear in the United States Code if passed.

In an unprecedented continuation of two American political dynasties, Vice President Barbara Pierce Bush, sends a confidential instant message to President Mahlia Obama. The two are known for their ability to bridge by partisan divides through quick access to open government documents.

The President wants to understand the impact of the amendment on administrative law. A quick LII search provides a list of federal regulations that may be related to changes in the United States Code. In combination with internal government sources, her assistant is able to identify pending Federal Regulations that might be impacted by the amendment. He reviews the historic point-in-time directories of the Code of Federal Regulation. He completes an analysis of how this amendment might streamline workflows or create conflicts between agencies.

The Vice-President reaches across the aisle to the Majority Leader and shares her analysis. They agree on slight changes to the language in order to meet constituent opinion, address the policy concerns, and to keep the government running effectively.

When the amendment passes, LII notifies all lawyers, who have argued or written about the law and who have opted-in to notification services. The Senate immediately publishes everything as open data and it appears on G! government entertainment live-casting.

My legal Memex builds a network of the people and laws available in the public records of politicians and organizations. The infrastructure for this vision relies on open data, free access to law, and instantaneously availability. The text analysis and machine learning assumes a neutral analysis that is both defendable and leaves room for interpretation.

How far are we from meeting this vision?

As a scholar of legislative organizations, I consider the necessary institutional foundations for a successful legal information institute (LII). The past gives us encouragement. The past also shows how some fundamental principles are necessary to create reliable, accurate, timely, and authoritative data.

A few examples in the history of the United States show the progression necessary for creating the basis for the transition from documents to data.

Two weeks before the end of the first Congress, the chambers pass a law which orders the printing of government records. By the 13th Congress, they realized that distribution is just as important as printing. The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP), which ensures that documents and skilled librarians are available in every jurisdiction, has its origins in 3 Stat 140 (1813).

The idea that there was too much legal information for any one person to track was evident by the early 20th century. The United States Code, finished in 1926, provided subject access to general and permanent federal laws. Congress thought it was a good idea to create indexes and summaries of all pending legislation as well. The Digest of Public General Bills, which first appeared in 1936, continued to be published in annual volumes through 1990 when it was subsumed into an online database. Congress, as early as 1999, embraced structured data formats so today we have at least the United States Code, votes, legislation, administrative law (Code of Federal Regulations) published in XML.

Law must be documented, printed, distributed, indexed, and structured. While important to the free access to law movement, these developments are equally vital to the internal procedures of public sector organizations. The legislative, judicial, and executive branches could learn from each other and grow together.

The transition from documents to data is vital to modernizing the functioning of our centuries-old bureaucracies around the world, as my other 25 for 25 authors have attested. The projects initiated by Sarah Frug, Sylvia Kwakye and others working on LII in 2017 lead the way with innovative solution for tomorrow.

Law and legislation do not sit still. For instance, the promulgation of laws in the form of the US Records Act was updated in 1795, 1796, 1814, 1816, 1820 and 1842. We need patience as we move forward. Policy has always been iterative.

It is time for the next generation of legal, policy, and technology pioneers to move the free access to law movement forward.

What is your ideal legal Memex?

Anne L. Washington is a digital government scholar who specializes in informatics and technology management. Her expertise on government data currently addresses the emerging policy and governance needs of data science. The National Science Foundation has funded her research on open government data and data-intensive political science. Her work draws on both interpretive research methods and computational text analysis. She is an Assistant Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Arlington, VA, where she teaches organizational ethnography, socio-technical analysis, and electronic government. Prof. Washington serves on the Advisory Board of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Open Government Foundation. She has also served on the United Nations World E-parliament Working Group on XML in Parliament, the Oasis LegalXML technical committee of citations, and Federal Web Content Managers Usability Task Force. She was an invited expert to the W3C E-Government Interest Group and the W3C Government Linked Data Working Group.She holds a Bachelors of Arts (BA) in computer science from Brown University, and a Masters in Library Information Science (MLIS) from Rutgers University. She earned a PhD in Information Systems and Technology Management from The George Washington University School of Business with a secondary field in Organization Behavior.  Prior to completing her doctorate, she had extensive work experience in information architecture and information technology after years with the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, Barclays Global Investors, Wells Fargo Nikko Investment Advisors and Apple Computer.

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