Finding the Law on the Internet, Part I 
by Bill Wood

Everyone is presumed to know the law. That is an old maxim, but what a tangled web we weave. But, in today’s world, it is simply impossible to know all of the law. It is a full time job for lawyers to keep current with developments in very narrow areas. However, with an internet connection, the right web sites stored in your bookmarks file and some effort at crafting a question, you can find information about legal topics without sending a fat check to your lawyer for a fifteen minute phone call.

 No FAQ (a Frequently Asked Questions document found on-line that is prepared by volunteers) exists. That is the bad news. It would be too easy to write this topic if one already existed.

 There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of sites that present information on the law. That is the good news. With the modern search engines, you may actually find more information than you ever needed.

One caution though requires a brief, I promise it will be brief, review of your high school civics course. It is necessary to understand where the law “is” before you look for it. “It” is not where you might think.

 Our governmental system is made up of three separate branches: the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive. Each branch has a role in defining the law for us. The legislature drafts the laws, the judiciary tells us what the legislature meant, but couldn’t tell us, and the executive. . .well it enforces the laws the other two give us. I wish it were that simple. In fact, most laws are written by the executive branches of government. At the federal, state and even the local, city level, employees of the executive departments draft rules and regulations that implement the laws adopted by the legislature. Those rules and regulations are just as binding as any provision in the Texas Property Code.

No central repository that is open to the public exists. I wish it did because the legal research task would be fairly easy. Type in a question; press enter; and, magically, read the law.

There are literally thousands of governmental entities that draft laws and regulations. Some are very, very active in the use of computers to accomplish that mission. Legislatures, courts and bureaucracies all keep information in computer files. Thus, if a document reposes in a computer file somewhere, and if a researcher can get access to that file, the “law” can be found and used conveniently. That is the goal. The interesting challenge is that most of those computers are on separate networks, and there is no universal format.

Two major computer fee based networks are available to lawyers. They employ lawyers, typists and editors to provide that missing completeness and organization. West Publishing’s Westlaw and the Lexis service are both excellent tools. However, they are very, very expensive. Anyone that has received a bill from a lawyer that included electronic research as an item will tell you that it is at least $100 per hour and can go much higher. Each has the case law and statutes from all federal and state levels. West has even started adding municipal codes to its database. ( I know the Air Force is supposed to have a separate system but it is not open to the public. I understand that a Freedom of Information Access case seeking access to those files is currently pending in federal court.)

With any legal question, defining the question is the problem. The two major commercial systems allow the user to type a question as a Boolean search (e.g. Give me all Texas cases on sport utility vehicles but not criminal cases or cases before 1989) More recently, West introduced a plain English query capability. That may be why you pay a lawyer in the first place.

 But, you can find significant amounts of information on the net. Here’s how.

 I suggest anyone interested in the subject get a free copy of The Legal List by Erik J. Heels, published by Lawyers Cooperative Publishing. It can be found at http://www.lcp.com/The-Legal- List/TLL-home.html, This publication is a good overview of sources of legal information that are available on the net. It is not meant to teach a person how to research a legal question. Rather, it is more a compendium of sources. Lawyers and paralegals should also have a copy of The Lawyer’s Guide to the Internet by G. Burgess Allison, Published by the Section of Law Practice Management, Am. Bar Assoc., 1995.

 After you read Mr. Heels’ work, think about the information you want. If it proposed legislation, you will not find it at a court’s home page because no cases will have been tried. However, it may be at a special interest group’s site or a legislative home page. If you are interested in EPA or IRS rules, look for their page, not a judicial page. If you want to follow a specific court case, then you should look to see if the court’s decisions are reported on the net.

 However, four law schools have combined links to some of the potential sources with very good results. The best is the University of Texas (I’m not prejudice, I’m a St. Mary’s grad.) but the Chicago-Kent, Cornell and the Indiana University sites are very helpful.

 The University of Texas, Tarlton Law Library, has the Meta-Index at http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu:80/library/netref/law_search.html, and it is my favorite. This site is fairly well organized and has the best links to recent cases from the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals. Recently I was shaving one morning and heard the news about that court handing down a decision in the Hopwood case which concerned race based decisions in the law school admissions process. [Coincidentally, the case involved the UT law school.] Since I work for a governmental unit, I knew that case would be very interesting to the lawyers in the office. I found a link to it from the UT site. [The case, Hopwood v. State of Texas, et al , is at http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu/hopwood.html.] My major complaint with the UT setup is that the Fifth Circuit index is not at the Meta-Index, but at a separate location. It should be moved.

 The Cicago-Kent Law School has been a leader in applying computers to the study and practice of law for at least a decade. Its general page at http://www.kentlaw.edu/lawlinks is excellent. But, if you are researching technology issues, try http://www.kentlaw.edu/lawlinks/computer.html for a treasure trove.

 The best site for US Supreme Court cases is the Cornell law school page at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/. The coverage is better for recent cases, but some of the classics are also listed.

 Also, check the University of Indiana at http//www.law.indiana.edu/law/v-lib/lawindex.html.

 There are two national newspapers that specialize in the legal market. Both also have excellent web pages that are free and open to the general public. Both of them will have information on breaking national stories, such as significant Court Decisions or new legislation. They are Lexis Counsel Connect at http://www.counsel.com/ and Law Journal Extra at http://www.ljextra.com.

 One last item for this first installment. The Texas legislature will convene its next session in January, 1997. It has a very valuable site that is irreplaceable for following state legislation. It can be found at http://www.tx.gov/leg/info.html. Permit me a personal example. I used this site on a daily basis during the last legislative session to follow specific bills. The full text of each bill is posted. Further, as the item goes through the system, the revisions, committee reports, budget analysis and committee hearing schedules are posted. During the last legislative session I was scheduled to testify at a hearing before a committee in Austin one day at 8:00 a.m. The night before I logged-on to the site and found the hearing had been changed to 7:00 a.m. and moved to another room of the Capital complex. I’ve been meaning to send a thank you note to the state’s IS crew for that one. This is one site where we taxpayers have received a great value for the money.

At the local level we are trying to use the net to get information out to the citizens. The City of San Antonio’s Information Services Department, has a homepage at http://www.ci.sat.tx.us. It has had basic information about various city departments and contact information. But, as an experiment, the proposed changes to the electrician licensing provisions of the City Code have been posted along with information about an upcoming public hearing on the changes. Anyone interested in those changes, which may be adopted as the law in San Antonio, can review the document in full. If this type of local information is useful, let the webmaster (a.k.a. Nancy Dean, Alamo PC member) know. [You might e-mail criticisms to yours truly--I’m the lawyer assigned to assist the Electrical Board.]

Next time we will explore two other sources. Some web pages posted by law firms are free and helpful. Of course the firms are trying to attract clients, but the free information is very useful. Also, the administrative law area is where the real action is in our society. Many of the governmental agencies have excellent sites. More later.

Bill Wood is a real estate attorney for San Antonio's City Attorney's Office and the primary legal advisor to the city's Information Services Office on contracting and intellectual property issues. A graduate of St. Mary's, he and his wife Martha have a twelve-year-old daughter, Stephanie.