Legal Research in the Age of Open Law

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          lthough simple in theory, the concept of free or          Along came the World Wide Web and two professors who
          open law is complex in execution. Its ultimate goal:    saw the potential of open law resources. Peter Martin and
          Make the documents and decisions created within         Thomas Bruce launched the Cornell Legal Information
government resources, such as the judiciary and federal           Institute (LII) in 1992. Their first action was to make the
agencies, freely available to the public user. A review of the    Hermes project information more accessible through the
U.S. governmental structure and its effect on the legal sys-      WWW protocol. The LII took a focused approach to providing
tem clarifies one reason for the complexity of execution.         access to legal materials. This approach resulted in a central
• Judiciary: Precedents created by opinions at all levels         resource for legal researchers seeking access to the U.S. Code,
• Executive: Agency decisions and regulatory enforcement          the Code of Federal Regulations, and Supreme Court Opinions.
• Legislative: The laws, aka statutes                               The movement gained the notice of Congress. House
                                                                  Speaker Newt Gingrich took a proactive role in 1995 to
  These three branches repeat throughout all 50 states and        budget funds used by the Library of Congress to create
the country’s six territories and outlying areas, creating        THOMAS, now the central source for federal legislation.
hundreds of differing information types and sources. You            With these two resources, all three branches of govern-
could accomplish the task of open law execution, but              ment had a venue to provide open law access. The prolifer-
barely, if the only layer of complexity was the producing         ation of subsequent sites is impressive, but the focus of this
parties. Unfortunately, you must also factor in technology.       article is the ever-evolving need to improve the findability
                                                                  of specific information contained in these repositories.
OPEN LAW PRECEDENTS                                                 The next major milestone in accessibility to public legal
  For the practicing attorney working to keep legal research      information came from an initiative of the 2000 White House
costs in line and Joe Citizen just trying to access public doc-   under the Clinton administration. First.gov was a 90-day
uments of interest, open law is a vital tool. The advent of the   indexing of the executive materials on the internet. First.gov
World Wide Web was a breakthrough in opening access to            continues to evolve, now in its current iteration as USA.gov.
more people. However, open law content did not begin with
the World Wide Web.                                               THE COMMERCIAL SECTOR
  The Supreme Court of the United States was an early adopter       For 30 years, commercial publishers, such as LexisNexis
of open access to its content. “In 1990, the Court cooperated     and Westlaw, dominated online access to legal materials,
with the Hermes project … to make the Court’s opinions freely     both primary and secondary. The complex and efficient
available …” (“The Movement for Open Access Law,” by              searching capability of the products from commercial ven-
Michael W. Carroll. Lewis & Clark Law Review, pp. 741–760. Vol.   dors is undeniable. For 30 years, these providers have built
                                        ,
10, No. 4, winter 2006). However, FTP an early internet access    content stores that are unmatched, and they have sup-
protocol, was difficult for the average person to navigate.       ported the access to that content through complex search
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algorithms that allow users to retrieve relevant information.        Scholarly content adds yet another layer to the open law
As they now work to protect their market share, they have         movement. While many think this is a less important compo-
introduced another level of complexity, one that parallels        nent, it fits into the overall movement of open scholarship
the technology issues related to open access.                     and strengthens the foundation of open law. The conversa-
   In November 2009, Google announced its Google Scholar          tion in this space is complex. It fits into the state of academic
expansion to Legal Opini
				
DOCUMENT INFO
Description: Although simple in theory, the concept of free or open law is complex in execution. Its ultimate goal: Make the documents and decisions created within government resources, such as the judiciary and federal agencies, freely available to the public user. A review of the US governmental structure and its effect on the legal system clarifies one reason for the complexity of execution. For 30 years, commercial publishers, such as LexisNexis and Westlaw, dominated online access to legal materials, both primary and secondary. The complex and efficient searching capability of the products from commercial vendors is undeniable. Technology, particularly open source software, is a central component of this movement. Most of the costs for free resources are a result of the search capabilities within the free sources. It's important to remember that free has its own cost. A major obstacle to the reliance on open law sources is the time necessary to navigate and find the correct resource.
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