legalresearch.1.gif (4432 bytes)

Legal Research Online

STATE AND LOCAL LAW ON THE WEB

by Peri H. Pakroo

Finally, online legal information that hits close to home.
Much of the charm of the Internet lies in its power to connect us with people and information from distant corners of the globe. People with online access--a rapidly growing population now in the tens of millions--can access Japan's stock market quotes, view artwork in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, even visit the virtual White House, all in one sitting. But while the Net might be great for playing chess with an opponent in Malaysia, it has been of much less use in dealing with practical tasks such as obtaining information on state or local laws. State courts have lagged behind the federal ones in making legal information such as case opinions and statutes available online.

As with most things technological, this situation is rapidly changing. One by one, state courts and other local government entities are wiring up and beginning to offer information and services over the Internet. All but two states--Nevada and West Virginia--now have Web sites for legal information, and more than 40 of them publish court opinions online. The systems vary from state to state; some states have dial-up bulletin board systems, some offer Web access, some charge for access to various databases.

Where to Start
With the multitude of these new information sources and the constant changes, it can be difficult to find one's way around. To help users find what they need, a number of Web sites offer indexes and links to law-related state and local sites.

Perhaps the best resource online for finding state-based legal information can be found at a site maintained by Piper Resources, at http://www.piperinfo.com/state/states.html. This site contains a State Court Directory that lists and links to providers of legal information for individual states as well as multi-state providers. Each listing provides the URL of the database, as well as which court opinions are available, the dates of coverage, notes on accessibility, plus the sponsor and contact information for the database. For example, at this page you'll learn that Arkansas' Supreme Court and Court of Appeals decisions from January 1996 on are available at http://www.state.ar.us/supremecourt/opinions/opmain.htm, while New Jersey's court site at http://www.state.nj.us/judiciary/ does not provide any opinions. The directory is updated monthly.

Indiana University School of Law maintains a State Government index within the World Wide Web Virtual Library at http://www.law.indiana.edu/law/v-lib/states.html. For each state, this index lists which courts are accessible online, as well as which other governmental agencies can be accessed--for example, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, and the Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission. Because each state's resources are listed (and linked), you can see up-front what each state has to offer. This list is comprehensive, easy to use, and is searchable.

Another index is sponsored by Washburn University School of Law at http://lawlib.wuacc.edu/washlaw/uslaw/statelaw.html. There you'll find a set of links to individual states that offer online legal information. The links do not indicate what you'll find there, so you must go to a site to find out. Also at this site is a set of links to organizations, associations and other groups that offer state-level legal information for all states, such as the National Center for State Courts and Municipal Codes Online. This site offers a search engine as well.

The Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School has an index of state court resources similar to Washburn's. At http://www.law.cornell.edu/states/index.html, you'll find a list of states, each one a link to whatever legal resources that state offers. You'll have to visit each site to find out what's there, which can be time-consuming if you're looking for information from some or all states. If you followed the link to Delaware, for example, you'd find that no court decisions are available, and at West Virginia's site, you'd find no legal information at all.

Books Aren't Endangered
As more and more state and local legal information becomes available online, one might think that law libraries--real ones with heavy books--will become obsolete. Will online access become, instead of a convenience, a necessity? Not so, says Nina Platt, the author of the State Court Directory found at Piper's site. Platt, a librarian at the Minnesota Office of the Attorney General who helped construct Minnesota's archive of state laws, sees a number of obstacles to using online legal resources exclusively.

A major one is the lack of backdated information online, which is crucial to legal research. "Some legal briefs cite cases from the 1800s," Platt points out. Few states are willing to input cases dating back that far, or even just as far back as a few years. In addition, case opinions published online will need to use a standard system of citation in order to be useful to litigants. The currently accepted citation system, called star pagination, is now claimed to be copyrighted by West Publishing, a claim which other online publishers dispute. The dispute will likely last for years, stalling the question of a standard system for online case opinions.

"A lot will have to change for the Internet to be the single legal resource," predicts Platt. But for now, it is rapidly becoming a much more useful resource at the state and local level, where people need it most.

 

Copyright 1999 by Peri H. Pakroo. Excerpted by arrangement with Nolo Press.

Useful books from Nolo Press are available in local bookstores or call 800-992-6656 or click here to order Legal Research Online and in the Library ($39.95), a comprehensive book on how to find and understand the law. This book also contains a CD-ROM with point-and-click access to over 4,000 law-related URLs.