The Daily Record of Rochester (Rochester, NY)
Posted on April 1, 2003
By Nora Jones
Fundamental to the American legal system is the principle of stare decisis -- that judicial decisions should stand as precedents in the resolution of future legal issues. Thus, it is difficult to explain the importance of publishing case law and analytical treatises without some reference to the doctrine or principle of stare decisis.
However, translating that Latin term into Russian made for an interesting start to a presentation that Thomson West employees hosted for ussian judges and officials visiting Rochester last week. Other vocabulary challenges include "headnotes," "annotated laws," and "key number classification" -- terms which American lawyers take for granted in daily legal research.
"The American legal publishing system essentially involves a partnership between the public sector and private business," stated Tom Leighton, vice president of government-based products at Thomson West. "Historically, the importance of unfettered access to judicial opinions inspired various businessmen to publish and distribute case law. John West was one such businessman who began publishing case summaries in 1876 and expanded that effort across the Midwest by working closely with the courts to collect and disseminate cases, launching the Northwestern Reporter and other regional publications that became known as the national reporter system."
Today, the system has over 7 million cases reported in 11,000 volumes. Thomson West currently collects decisions from approximately 3,500 state and federal courts, receiving an average of 600 decisions each day. Approximately 70 attorney-editors review the daily onslaught of opinions to identify key points and create headnotes. A large support staff also helps to contact the courts for corrections, as the first release of court decisions often have minor errors that need to be investigated.
"Until 1980, this was a paper and courier collection process," Leighton continued. "Now about 85 percent of all cases are received electronically. This significantly reduces the timeframe for getting the decisions into the hands of the public -- via online technology."
Leighton went on to explain that distribution through changing technology has, in recent years, broadened the scope of citable precedents in some jurisdictions. Where previously "unpublished" decisions had no precedential value because they were not publicly available in print, technology has changed that and more decisions are available in a variety of formats.
"Americans are still grappling with whether unpublished means not-in-print or not available and where to draw the line," said Leighton. "Jurisdictions still differ on what precedent means under today's technology."
Despite the significant availability of state and federal case law and statutes via print and electronic distribution, Leighton admitted that most county and municipal law is further behind, with local governments still determining how to convert data for electronic distribution, and how to fund such projects prospectively and retrospectively.
Through various questions asked by the Russians, the visitors revealed that Russia has some 30,000 judges when counting city and local courts along with regional and federal. There are also regulations in Russia to ensure governmental information is made available. However, since not everyone has access to the Internet, sometimes information is misconstrued in the media or taken out of context.
The Thomson West employees presented a personalized copy of Black's Law Dictionary to each of the foreign visitors. Minister of Justice Viktor Aleksandrovich Khrabrov presented a birch bark (blank) book to Thomson West.
[Reprinted with Permission]