What do avid bicyclists and handgun owners have in common?
Probably more in common than not. Two things are a need to know the law, and a desire to discuss it.
So I conclude that the ability to find, read, and share the law online is a good thing. It might even be the beginning of a more transparent and democratic era. These screenshots show people participating in exactly this way, who were helped out by this website. (Awesome!)
This all might look easy, e.g., “So just make a website, and people can link to it … what’s the big deal?” In reality, though, it’s difficult to pull off, and so the status quo is, it doesn’t happen.
Just look around the web: most pages don’t have permalinks (“Persistent URLs”, “PURLs”) that people can use. And often, even if a web page does have a URL that seems good for linking, there are other show-stoppers: it may not stay working. Or if it does stay working, then it may not contain the same content in a few months’ time.
I’ve run into the oddest problem as I add the California Codes to WebLaws.org. The Sections, the actual statutes themselves, are not given any kind of name as they are in other states. Here are the basic burglary statutes of Oregon and California:
These screenshots show one problem this creates. For starters, there is no reliable way to provide a good table of contents for a group of California Code sections.
Now, in the legislative business, these names are called leadlines, and they’re usually not part of the actual controlling law. But their usefulness should be obvious: leadlines help everyone write about, talk about, and research the law. And it turns out that these names are important enough that publishers like Westlaw and LexisNexis have created their own for their customers’ use.
From an economic perspective, California is not performing this part of the legislative process, delegating it instead to private companies. And so, the only people with access to this part of the code are those who pay for it. In other words, instead of the cost (of naming their statutes) being distributed across all tax payers, it’s paid by those acutely needing access to the law.
There’s an additional cost to this scheme that all Californians bear, however: inefficiencies resulting from a lack of standardized names. I mentioned that Westlaw and LexisNexis have leadlines for the code. They do differ, of course.
Caveat: I’m new to California law. Is there something I’m missing here? Let me know.
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Last night I discovered a great source of vintage versions of the Oregon Revised Statutes: The Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine. I had a true Homer Simpson moment — “Doh! Why didn’t I think of this before?” For research-aholics, this is nothing short of nirvana.
Great but not perfect
The WayBack Machine isn’t a perfect solution, though: it can be arbitrary about what it saves as well as how it does it. Further, documents can be deleted at the request of the original site owner, even if the content is in the public domain. These drawbacks lead me to…
I knew I’d eventually integrate all these previous texts into OregonLaws.org. But until I get around to that, I realized we need a permanently accessible repository of raw source texts for a few reasons: (1) There’s no good way for people to find out that these texts even exist, because the WayBack Machine doesn’t allow search engines like Google to index its site: I had been searching in vain for these for a long time. (2) The state of Oregon takes down the old web pages when it updates the ORS. Since every document on OregonLaws.org cites its source with a link, I need to create a permanent location for these before they disappear off the web. (3) This archive will provide the raw materials for others to work with and innovate in ways that I haven’t even thought of.
I followed Carl Malamud’s excellent example and created an “archive” that’s out there for anyone to access. It’s not too beautiful and not easy to search, but the content is organized and freely available.
It takes a bit of time to archive this much material, and so the process will last a few days. Many pieces are there now, such as the 1999 ORS table of contents and its chapters like 723 Credit Unions. I’ll write another post when the collection is complete.
Another is ORS 737.320, Review of Certain [Workers’ Comp Rating Organization] Filings. It now displays an excerpt and link to an article from the trade magazine Risk & Insurance about a relevant hearing coming up.
The process is mostly automatic, and the number of linked secondary sources is growing daily. An algorithm filters in only relevant articles by looking, for example, for references to ORS Chapters and Sections.
I’ve been wanting something like this for a while: as a student, I like reading current articles to get an idea about the meaning of a statute and any current issues revolving around it. This ought to be useful for practitioners too, especially when combined with a subscription service (in development) to the news updates based on ORS Volumes or Chapters.
We’ve added a new feature to the site: it now automatically detects many of its own errors. It does this by correlating the text of the statutes with the information in its database.
In the interests of transparency and quality, visible error messages will appear where the system finds a mismatch; see the first screenshot. Here, the system couldn’t complete the internal link to the named section, implying that the program didn’t parse the text correctly.
When this happens, the “bad link” annotation appears instead of a (broken) hyperlink, and the system notifies us that the area needs fixing. If you find one of these and want it to get worked on sooner, post a comment here or drop us a line.