The Tyrannical Weight of Tradition in the Law

Cory Doctorow has a post up at Boing Boing about a copyright dispute (of sorts) between the Harvard Law Review and Carl Malamud. Parker Higgins and Sarah Jeong have written a commentary on the whole mess, calling out the Harvard Law Review as a copyright troll:

Of course, far be it from us to call the Harv. L. Rev. a repulsive troll squatting on a small but nonetheless key component of equal access to the law, profiting off a slavish attentiveness to convention instilled in lawyers during law school, much to the detriment of the public. Far be it from us indeed.

Carl Malamud is known for is work to help make the law and essential public documents available to the public. The Harvard Law Review’s lawyer wrote him a cease and desist letter when he posted an HTML version of the Bluebook on his website. Who knew that what is in some courts and in all law reviews a mandatory system of citation in the law was subject to copyright? Should a portion of filing fees in legal pleadings go to the Harvard Law Review? And if Malamud is infringing on copyright in his efforts, what about every law librarian, law professor or CLE speaker who puts together handouts or powerpoint slides to help students and practitioners figure out this Byzantine complex system of citation? In fact, why are we even using the Bluebook in this day and age?

If there is an industry or profession that is less innovative than the law, I am not sure what it is — perhaps primitive Baptists. Ponder these points:

  • Our whole system of citation to case law is antiquated. For the uninitiated, when lawyers or courts cite to a case in the form of, let’s say Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), they are referring to a book’s volume and page number. To what book are they referring? They are referring to an official dead tree compilation of cases (here, volume 466) and a page number (here page 668). Where might one find these books? Today, virtually nowhere. There may have been a time when many law firms kept a complete set of these volumes in a law library. But now you would be hard pressed to find a law firm with these books. And even in large law firms that may have them, they are probably gathering dust until some crusty partner insists on picking one up. If you see these volumes at all in a law firm, they are there for decoration along with those handsome leather-bound and overpriced case books (themselves antiquated) they sold you in law school. They look quite handsome next to the brass globe and the bankers lamp. Yet, our entire system of citation works by reference to books that neither the writer of the brief nor the reader of the brief owns any longer. And it’s a pain. if you pinpoint cite to a page number within a case, you have to look in the online copy or the printout of the case to find the anachronistic page number to reference it. And the judge who reads your brief and wants to find the page number himself will not look to a page number in the case but will have to go on a similar needle in a haystack search for the page number in his printout because he will likely not have the book in front of hims since he doesn’t own a copy. Surely, there’s a better way.
  • Even though Georgia’s appellate courts allow you to efile your briefs, they actually charge you a higher filing fee to file online than they do if you file the brief in person the old fashioned way. Though surely efiled briefs are easier for the court to handle.
  • Speaking of efiling, Georgia has over 150 counties, each with their own “traditions” for what you do when you file papers. There’s no uniform system that would allow for efiling such as exists in the federal system. A bill to move toward that came crashing down from clerks of court who opposed it. So, if you are a lawyer in Savannah and a client comes to you on an emergency matter with something that needs to be filed in Atlanta, you better have someone available who can drive it up there or you better have a day to get the filing sent by FedEx, or you can’t help that person.
  • Even the experience of finding case information on the docket varies by county. Want information about a case on the docket in Cobb or DeKalb County? You’re in luck. You can go to their online docket and see an index of filings. In some counties, though, you will find yourself driving to the clerk’s office and literally opening a huge leather-bound book and looking up a party name in an antiquated hand-written index. In some, you’ll be looking at a dot-matrix printout that’s held together in a circa 1980s book report cover.
Why are we still doing court like this? Why are we still preparing briefs like this? Why are the proceedings in court taken down by a scribe still? The issue between the Harvard Law Review and Carl Malamud is an example of a bigger issue of the weight of tradition in the law and how frustrating it is.


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