Biden should make legal information free and accessible

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As I took on a few pro bono cases during graduate school after I left the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, I immediately ran into a roadblock. Being unaffiliated with a law office meant I did not have access to a legal information database. 

These databases contain all state and federal court cases, codes, regulations and statutes. They are searchable and user-friendly. They are also privately owned and costly. 

There is no centralized public database for legal information in the United States. Some documents may be available via internet searches, but the most reliable, searchable sources are through private companies. Attorneys and their clients spend thousands of dollars each year to access these private databases. 

As President-elect Joe Biden begins his administration with an eye toward rebuilding the fundamentals of a democratic system, he could score an easy legislative win by addressing the lack of access to legal information and save the state and federal governments millions of dollars in the process. To that end, he should propose developing the Legal Information Service (LIS).

The LIS would provide free access to all public legal information in a searchable database that would include the written decisions of every federal and state court as well as federal and state statutes, codes, regulations, opinions and other similar material. Sitting within the Library of Congress, this new program would provide access to the type of documents critical for any democracy.

The current system of privatizing access to legal information is problematic. First, only those who have means can access comprehensive legal information. While there are some libraries that offer access to these private databases, most people must pay for access. These databases are not pay-as-you-go but require subscriptions

Second, the current system undermines democracy. A free democracy requires that its citizens understand and have access to its laws. Without a central, searchable and official repository for all laws, it becomes challenging for citizens to then understand their government and its decisions.

Third, the current system is costly to taxpayers. In fact, the federal, state and municipal governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars for access to court records. In reviewing the 2019 federal agency vendor contracts from, I found nearly  $200 million in contracts for legal research services. This does not include the monies spent by states and municipalities. 

To address these problems, Congress should create a web portal for all public legal information. Rather than retrieve new decisions from every court the way private companies must, Congress can direct federal courts to send copies of all decisions and public documents to the LIS. The LIS can work with state courts, legislatures and agencies to create a pathway for easy document collection. If needed, Congress could provide funding to help state court systems interface with LIS. There may be a significant upfront investment to create a searchable database and collect court and statute records dating back to the nation’s founding, but the program should save the federal government hundreds of millions of dollars over time. 

Most importantly, the LIS would provide legal information to the public for free. This means legal services agencies, solo attorneys and small law firms, state governments, municipal governments, corporations, large law firms, the press and the public would all receive access. The successful launch of the program would quickly provide financial relief to governments and businesses with tight budgets that spend thousands of dollars annually on legal information access. In addition, LIS would allow for greater transparency in our justice system.

A new administration is an opportunity to innovate and think differently. The LIS has the advantage of providing an important public service; building transparency and accessibility within our democracy; and saving businesses and local, state and federal governments millions of dollars. 

Jonathan Sclarsic is a former Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General. He currently resides in Washington, D.C.

Tags biden administration Congress database Democracy Joe Biden judicial system legal database Legal documents Legal Information System legal system taxpayers

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