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Law student opens access to state statutes, earns recognition for promoting democracy through technology

June 17, 2010

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When Robb Shecter, a software and web developer, entered law school he turned to the Internet to look for a resource that would allow him easy access to thousands of Oregon statutes for research.

Shecter soon discovered, though, that there was no online searchable source that allowed everyone access to all of Oregon’s laws—so he decided to build one. In one year, weblaws.org has grown to include statutes from Oregon, and New York, and he will tackle California next. His work has drawn the attention of bloggers, academics, and practitioners in the legal community and possibly revolutionized how citizens in Oregon and beyond can access the laws that govern them.

While a few states have their statutes online in formats that are fairly accessible, and law students and lawyers can pay fees to use commercial services, no source offered easy, free search functionality to anyone looking for information about Oregon laws.

Over the last year, Shecter’s work has piqued the interest of the legal community for its usability. A comparison of weblaws.org’s Oregon statutes site and the official government site is telling, for example. The legal research community is one sector helping to spread the word about the weblaws.org model.

“Online publication of state statutes is a big deal,” the University of Chicago Law Library blogged. “One of the problems, along with authentication, is the user-unfriendliness of many of these online statutes. OregonLaws.org has a clean and clear design and a number of neat features, including: indented statutory provisions (yay!); easy browsing between sections; official annotations on the side of relevant statutory language; and source/citation for all provisions.”

While Shecter built the site to ease legal research for law students, he has received positive feedback from practitioners who use the site for their own research and point their clients to it as a resource, as well.

“This really surprised me,” Shecter said. “When I made it, I didn’t know if it would help any practicing attorneys. 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. And then by extension, if it solves problems I have then it will do the same for others. 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!”

A New York attorney from Wahab & Medenica wrote on the law firm’s blog:

“I often advise clients to look at the code when confronted with certain questions as the actual statute itself may speak to an issue more loudly and clearly than one would think. So I am now somewhat ironically suggesting one add a new New York Law repository to the list, by second year law student Robb from Oregon’s Lewis & Clark Law School, if only for its sheer readability.”

Promoting the democratic process

The site’s capability to promote the democratic process earned Shecter a role as a presenter at Access to the Raw Materials of Our Democracy, a day-long workshop sponsored by The Center for American Progress. The event, held in June, is part of a workshop series that is examining 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.

“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 said. “I blogged about this and showed some examples of weblaws.org forum discussions where citizens are sharing information with each other about traffic laws and concealed handgun licensing procedures.”

In addition, the site protects users’ privacy when they do research by using SSL—the same security feature used for online banking services—making an individual’s search untraceable.

Shecter does not fault states for the bureaucratic challenges citizens face in dealing with a governmental system, but he recognizes the power of harnessing technology to overcome them.

“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,” Shecter pointed out. “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.”

Learn more about Shecter’s work