Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research
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The Search for State Law

This article has been archived and may no longer be updated.


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


   Originally published by Law Office Computing (Dec/Jan 2003) under the title, "Legislation on the Web." Revised to reflect resources and strategies current as of the date appearing at the end of the page.


26 March 2003. Pssst!

During the continuing legal education program moderator's introductory remarks, Lawyer X hears the low but persistent hissing of someone trying to get his attention. He turns to find his old friend, Lawyer Y, sitting two rows behind him.

Lawyer Y mouths, "We have to talk."

X nods and turns his attention back to the speaker.

At the first break in the program, the lawyers catch up with events in their personal lives. X takes the ribbing he expected from Y over dating another lawyer at his firm. Their banter continues until the break ends, when Y suddenly remembers his need for research advice.

On the way to presentation room, he suggests, "Let's have lunch. I'm buying. I need your recommendation about some research."

Over lunch, Lawyer Y tells X about a client's request for information about state sex offender registry laws. A struggling not-for-profit organization, the client cannot afford to pay for extensive research in online legal databases.

Y explains that the client read somewhere that 12 states publish information about juvenile sex offenders on state-sponsored Web sites. He wants to know which state laws permit the dissemination of information about juvenile sex offenders, and of these, which publish the information online.

While most states make the full-text of their statutes available on the Web, searching each individually presents a monumental task under the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, the condition of some state statute Web sites barely meets acceptable quality criteria, impeding, rather than facilitating, the hunt for current law. As if complicating this hypothetical scenario, the courts have begun to weigh in on due process and privacy issues relating to the dissemination of this type of information.** What sounds like a straightforward statutory question, then, quickly becomes an involved assignment dependent on free or low-cost sources of laws that may change at any time.

Lawyer X suggests two initial strategies: Search for current comprehensive articles, or find an expert. Because of the recent activity in state courts, Y should limit an online search to articles published no earlier than two years ago. He should also expect to update the information he finds. With respect to an expert, he should look for someone (e.g., privacy advocate, law enforcement official) who would have current knowledge on the subject in all states.

In performing a Web search for articles, Y cannot make the date limitation a part of his query. While many search engines provide date qualifiers, these do not comprise publication or creation dates. They refer mostly to the date an engine indexes a document, which is meaningless for this type of research.

After more discussion, the lawyers decide on two tactics. First, Y will use a specialty search engine that queries government-only Web sites in an attempt to locate an expert. During this process, he will keep his eyes open for articles and other useful commentary. If necessary, Y will expand the query to include .org domains. This will add non-profit advocacy groups to the scope of the research.

Second, Y will search for a literature database covering criminal justice or legal issues. Searching a database will not present the same technical problem with respect to dates that he would encounter using a search engine.

If the second tactic becomes necessary, Y will begin his search for a relevant database at the Web sites of local public and academic libraries with law collections. Libraries typically give members access to literature databases via their Web sites. A Philadelphia lawyer, Y may search Legal Resources Index (bibliographic), Index to Legal Periodicals (bibliographic), and Hein On-Line (full-text), for example, from the Web site of the Jenkins Law Library. Jenkins Law Library also serves members outside the Philadelphia area.

With respect to the first strategy, where will Y find a specialty search engine for government-only Web sites? Google Unclesam, a helpful Google utility, whose existence the engine buries in its help documentation, restricts queries to .gov and .us domains. It also includes some .com domains that provide government information (e.g., FindLaw).

A broad search for the phrase "sex offender" (use quotations) retrieves over 24,000 hits. One of these (ranking around 50 in a list of 100) leads to the FBI's collection of sex offender registries. While the collection does not provide the name of an expert, it refers researchers to the Crimes Against Children Coordinator at local FBI field offices - a possible source, and gives information about the availability of an online registry for each state.

It serves to limit the scope of the research. For example, Hawaii, it says, does not provide information on the Internet about sex offenders. Y now can scratch Hawaii, as well as, California, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin from his list.

How might Y improve the initial query to move the FBI page up toward the top of the results list, or to find potential experts? Think about what you would call a government entity devoted to this topic, assuming one exists. The name possibly would contain bureau, institute, organization, or a similar word.

Select the advanced search page from Google Unclesam. Note that this takes you to the main Google engine. Enter sex offender as a phrase. Then in the field labeled "at least one," enter the terms, bureau, institute, and organization. Google will connect keywords entered in this field with the Boolean OR. Y could limit the domain to .gov, but Lawyer X suggests that he begin broadly and then narrow the query as necessary.

Not only does this search improve the ranking of the FBI page (around 12 in a list of 100), it finds, and ranks toward the top, the Web site of the Center for Sex Offender Management. The U.S. Department of Justice and several criminal justice institutes sponsor this organization.

Browsing the Web site, Y finds a link to a Bureau of Justice Statistics document entitled Summary of State Sex Offender Registries 2001. This publication updates an earlier one, and provides information about state sex offender registry laws and public Internet access in effect as of February 2001. It also notes "mandated registrants," which includes information about requirements regarding juvenile offenders convicted as juveniles.

At this point, Y could continue the research following a couple of different directions. He could phone the Bureau of Justice Statistics, or the Center for Sex Offender Management, and attempt to speak to someone knowledgeable about any changes since February 2001. He could compile a list of states that required juvenile registration and provided public Internet access during February 2001. Then he could update it by checking the Web sites and reviewing current laws and court decisions in those states. A phone call to the Crimes Against Children Coordinator in the local FBI field offices for the relevant states might serve to confirm the information he finds.

The telephone rings. It's Lawyer Y.

"Hey, X," he begins, "Your suggestions about the sex offender registry research last week panned out. The client was thrilled. He even made some of the phone calls himself."

Lawyer X congratulates him and starts to hang up, but Y continues.

"I could use your advice about another matter. Have a minute?"

"It'll cost you," X teases good-naturedly.

"How much?"


"You're on." Y pauses. "But you should have asked for dinner." Click.

** The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued two opinions on these issues. See Smith v. Doe and Connecticut Dept. of Public Safety v. Doe. [back to article]


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Created: 26 March 2003
Revised: 18 October 2007 (no text revisions)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/state_law.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com