What Free and Open Access To The Law Looks Like

I spend a lot of time working on and thinking about free and open access to the law, mostly court opinions. Today the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The opinion strikes down a section of the Voting Rights Act and will certainly trigger much discussion, debate, and possibly legislation going forward.

I’ll leave analysis of the decision to others and instead point out a graphic demonstration of the power of free and open access to the law. I think we can all agree that Shelby is going to have an impact on voting in America. Now this decision is the law of the land. Everyone needs to know about it. Access to the decision needs to be free and open. As soon as the opinion was issued it began cropping up on the web. Links were being posted to Twitter:

Following the links in these tweets provided interesting results that provide a graphic highlight of what free and open access to the law looks like. Clicking on the link in the Westlaw tweet gives the user this:

Shelby on WLNOn the other hand clicking on the link in the LII tweet gets us to a better place:

Shelby on LII


I understand that WestlawNext is a commercial service owned and operated by Thomson Reuters, but this document is law that applies to everyone in the United States. If you are going to link to it in a public space at least put the text of the opinion in from of the paywall so everyone seeing your link can read the opinion. Save the login for all of the extra value your products bring to the analysis of the decision.

I also understand that all too frequently our access to the law that governs our country is restricted by commercial interests who have little or no incentive to freely and openly distribute the law. Our law protects our freedom and our law needs to be free and open for all to readily access.



Here I do mean free as in freedom and free in the economic sensePowered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5

GOV.UK Goes Beta With Open Source, Mobile Friendly, Scalable Platform

The British Government has launched a beta of its GOV.UK platform, testing a single domain for that could be used throughout government. The new single government domain will eventually replace Directgov, the UK government portal which launched back in 2004. GOV.UK is aimed squarely as delivering faster digital services to citizens through a much improved user interface at decreased cost.

Unfortunately, far too often .gov websites cost millions and don’t deliver as needed. GOV.UK is open source, mobile-friendly, platform agnostic, uses HTML5, scalable, hosted in the cloud and open for feedback. Those criteria collectively embody the default for how government should approach their online efforts in the 21st century.

via With GOV.UK, British government redefines the online government platform – O’Reilly Radar.

The site seems pretty easy to use and is very responsive. I could see this as a model for other governments. Check it out at www.gov.uk.



Data.gov to be Open Sourced for World-Wide Deployment

The code for the platform is based on Drupal and you can download a copy from Github at https://github.com/opengovplatform/opengovplatform.

OpenPublic Drupal – A Solution for U.S. Courts?

OpenPublic is an open source content management system based on Drupal and tailored for building websites for government

via By the people, for the people | OpenPublic.

From the same folks who brought us Open Atrium, OpenPublic is a Drupal distribution that has been tailored to meet the security, accessibility, and transparency needs of the Federal government. So, is it a solution for U.S. courts? Certainly using a platform like Drupal would provide courts with the ability to create custom websites while maintaining a standard backend that could be used to provide greater access to court decisions, rules and forms. Does anyone know if any courts are using Drupal for their main website?

The Report of Current Opinions: Santa Comes Early to the Open Law Movement

Public.Resource.Org will begin providing in 2011 a weekly release of the Report of Current Opinions (RECOP). The Report will initially consist of HTML of all slip and final opinions of the appellate and supreme courts of the 50 states and the federal government. The feed will be available for reuse without restriction under the Creative Commons CC-Zero License and will include full star pagination.This data is being obtained through an agreement with Fastcase, one of the leading legal information publishers. Fastcase will be providing us all opinions in a given week by the end of the following week. We will work with our partners in Law.Gov to perform initial post-processing of the raw HTML data, including such tasks as privacy audits, conversion to XHTML, and tagging for style, content, and metadata.

via The Report of Current Opinions – O\’Reilly Radar.

On Sunday Dec. 19 Carl Malamud made the startling announcement quoted above. And you did read it correctly: “The Report will initially consist of HTML of all slip and final opinions of the appellate and supreme courts of the 50 states and the federal government. ” To say that this is huge would be the understatement of the year.

From personal experience I can tell you that the “slip and final opinions of the appellate and supreme courts of the 50 states and the federal government” have never all been freely available in HTML before. Not even close. At best you could probably wrangle 75% of these opinions in PDF using a mountain of code to scrape sites and parse feeds. To have all this available as a single feed is a game changer.

As a researcher and builder of tools for legal research and education, having access to a single feed that contains all of this data is just the thing I’ve been looking for (and occasionally trying to build) for the past 15 or so years. I have no doubt that the availability of this feed will spark a flurry of development to use the data in new and interesting ways. I will certainly be incorporating it in the CALI tools I’m currently working on.

Of course there are a couple of caveats here. First, we haven’t seen the feed yet. It won’t be available for a few weeks, so right now I’m still just waiting to see what it will look like. Second, there are 2 “timeouts” built into this service, direct government involvement by July 1, 2011 and a general sunset of private sector activity in creating the feed at the end of 2012. The timeouts underscore the belief that providing free and open access to primary legal materials is a duty of the government, plain and simple. As citizens we are bound to follow the law and our government should be obligated to provide us with free and open access to that law.

I know I’m certainly looking forward to a new year that brings greater free and open access to the law. Thanks, Carl.

State of Delaware Offers Authenticated Regulations Online

The Office of the Registrar of Regulations, publishes various documents which conform to accepted standards regarding authenticated digital content. The Office certifes the authenticated documents published on this website and assures the authenticity of the author, source and origin of the authenticated documents when such document bears the following emblem:

DE certification image

via State of Delaware – Delaware Regulations – Home Page.

This is important stuff. By adding this digital signature to the electronic copy of the Delaware Regulations viewers of the the documents can rely on them as accurate and authentic. That means that there is no need to refer to any other copy of the regulations. This pronouncement of authenticity of the digital copy is something that is key to the success of the open access to law movement. Until the bodies that generate the law authenticate the digital copies that are available using them is risky.

For example, look at this disclaimer from the Delaware Code website:

DISCLAIMER: Please Note: With respect to the Delaware Code documents available from this site or server, neither the State of Delaware nor any of its employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, including the warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, apparatus, product, or process disclosed, or represents that its use would not infringe privately-owned rights. This information is provided for informational purposes only. Please seek legal counsel for help on interpretation of individual statutes.

In a nutshell it disclaims authenticity in the online version of the code making it effectively useless without reference to the authenticated (presumably) print version. You cannot legally rely on the electronic copy of the Delaware Code.

It is worth noting that starting with the 2009 – 2010 session, volume 77, Laws of Delaware are also authenticated with digital signatures. These are the session laws of the Delaware General Assembly.

I’m not sure if any other states are making authenticated copies of regulations or codes available or if any courts are offering authenticated opinions but it is something that needs to be done. In order for the open access and law.gov movement to really work there needs to be open access to authenticated copies of the law. Simply having access to the raw data, or to unauthenticated copies is a fine first step, but is really only useful for research and information. After all, the law belongs to all of us, we have a right to open access to authenticated copies of the law.

HT to Law Librarian Blog for the pointer to the beSpecific link to Delaware Regulations.