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by Elmer Masters

The Legal Information Institute is 25 years old. For a quarter of a
century the organization built by Peter Martin and Tom Bruce at
Cornell has been a beacon for those interested in free and open access
to the law. The LII website provides unparalleled access to decisions
of the Supreme Court of the United States, including oral arguments
via Oyez!, the United States Code, and the Code of Federal
Regulations. LII manages several student led publications at Cornell
that provide valuable analysis of judicial proceedings of the Supreme
Court and the NY Court of Appeals. Its work influences policy on open
access to federal legal information.

But if you’re reading this, you probably already know that. You
probably also know that the work of the LII has provided a blueprint
for legal information institutes around the world as they work to
provide their citizens free and open access to the legal information
that is so key to creating an informed citizenry and fostering
democracy. Yet here in the United States once we step away from the
work of the LII we quickly wander into a vast wasteland of legal
information dominated by commercial vendors, arcane court,
legislative, and administrative systems, and questionable copyright
claims. While the LII has provided a workable model for publishing
legal information it hasn’t been adopted by the courts, legislatures,
and administrative bodies of this country.

As citizens of the US we are told that ignorance of the law is no
excuse.  We are expected to make informed decisions regarding a wide
range of issues when we vote. We are required to comply with an ever
growing number of rules and regulations. But we do not have free and
open access to the law, to the statutes, the regulations, the judicial
opinions that we are expected to follow in our day to day lives.

I know this is a broad statement, but I also know, sitting here in
Woodstock GA, it’s a whole easier for me to find out what order I
should watch the Fast & Furious movies in (hint: not the order they
were released) than what rules apply if I want to raise some chickens
in my backyard. I simply cannot think of any reason why that is a good
thing. The simple truth is that the law just isn’t as readily
available as some other information. And that truth is a serious
shortcoming in this country. We have the models provided by the LII,
why don’t we build on it?

It isn’t just in the legal information space that the Legal
Information Institute has provided models that we don’t follow. Many
may not realize that in the early years the LII had a significant role
in legal education. Peter Martin was a pioneer in bringing distance
education to US law schools and in using technology in the law school
classroom. LII published or co-published course and other materials
for law schools and developed a digital archive system for faculty
scholarship. As with legal information, LII’s work in legal education
provided models for distance education, in-class technology, and
digital archives that were years ahead of their time.

Like its legal system, legal education in the US is fairly unique.
It’s steeped in tradition and slow to change. Law is taught now pretty
much as it was a century ago. There is little variation in curriculum
from school to school. With swift changes to law practice driven by
technological changes and economic shifts legal education is in
crisis. Law schools are suffering from dropping enrollments, falling
bar passage rates, and a soft job market. Many schools are finally
taking a look at distance education and classroom technology as ways
to improve and differentiate their curriculum. Legal education could
do worse than to look back at the work LII did 15 – 20 years ago in
distance education and classroom technology.

Over the past 25 years the LII has provided leadership in legal
information and legal education. I’m looking forward to writing about
50 years of leadership.

Elmer Masters is the Director of Technology for the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI), a consortium for the development of novel methods of legal instruction that has most US law schools as members.  He is a former roadie.


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