Promoting Democracy by Improving Access to State Statutes

Photo of Robb Shecter

The Advocate, Lewis & Clark Law School p. 65 (Fall/Winter 2010).

Student SPOTLIGHT

When Robb Shecter ‘11 began his legal studies, he hunted for an online resource that would allow him easy access to Oregon statutes. He soon discovered that no such resource existed. So the software and web developer decided to create his own.

A year later, WebLaws.org has a track record of helping individuals throughout the legal community, including students, academics, and practicing lawyers. It has grown to include statutes from New York as well as Oregon, and Shecter plans to add California statutes next. The project's growth and user-friendly nature have big implications: The site could change how citizens can access the laws that govern them.

“I made it under the programmer’s motto, ‘eating my own dog food’ — that is, ensuring that it’s useful for me as a law student,” says Shecter. “And then by extension if it solves problems I have, it will do the same for others.”

Currently, access to state statutes is highly variable. Law students and lawyers can pay fees to use commercial services and a few states put their statutes online in reasonably straightforward formats. But before Shecter's work, no source offered easy, free search functionality to anyone looking for information about Oregon's laws.

“Online publication of state statutes is a big deal,” wrote Todd Ito, a reference librarian for the University of Chicago Law Library, in a library blog post about Shecter's project. "One of the problems, along with authentication, is the user-unfriendliness of many of these online statutes. OregonLaws.org [a WebLaws.org project] has a clean and clear design and a number of neat features, including indented statutory provisions, easy browsing between sections, official annotations on the side of relevant statutory language, and source/citation for all provisions.”

The demand for the information WebLaws.org provides extends well beyond law schools and libraries. Shecter has received positive feedback from practitioners who use the site for their own research. One lawyer from Wahab & Medenica in New York discussed on the company's blog how he even points clients to the site because of its “sheer readability”.

“This really surprised me,” Shecter said, "I had some good reasons to think that actual practicing lawyers might be underserved by the current offerings out there for legal research, but I kind of doubted this site would be useful. I was wrong!”

WebLaws.org has several features that could influence the future development of access to the law. The site protects users' privacy by using SSL - the same security feature used for online banking services - to make an individual's searches untraceable. The site also allows citizens to interact sat hey read the law, which leads to further understanding.

“The site enables everyone from gun enthusiasts to bicycle commuters to participate in the legal process, and citizens can participate in better discussions about policy and the law,” Shecter says. “Citizens are sharing information with each other about traffic laws and concealed handgun licensing procedures.”

Shecter does not fault states for the bureaucratic challenges citizens face in dealing with a governmental system. But he recognizes how technology can overcome these challenges.

“It is an absurd notion that citizens don't have easy access to the laws that govern them, especially since we're expected to follow the laws,” he says. “But of course, in the real world, I know how hard it is to build a good website, to create and publish any kind of document. Our legal system is hundreds of years old and we have practices that have evolved and accreted. It’s finally possible to do things a whole new way. The transparency-in-government movement wants government to simply give access to the data, allowing people like me to innovate.”

The site's capacity to promote the democratic process earned Shecter a role as a presenter at Access to the Raw Materials of Our Democracy, a daylong workshop sponsored by The Center for American Progress. The event, held in June, was part of a workshop series that explores the implications of making the law more broadly available. The workshops have examined copyright restrictions, privacy implications, and the technical underpinnings necessary to provide authenticated access to bulk legal materials.

In June, Shecter’s work earned recognition from yet another source. He won a 2010 Civic Apps for Greater Portland Best Idea Award for his proposal called Community-Contributed Datasets, of which his OregonLaws.org legal glossary is an example.

To learn more about WebLaws.org, read an article by Shecter on the project at http://bit.ly/BNNRn.