Stamford's Jonathan Stock and fellow law librarians have reason to be worried. They've watched an increasing stream of state statutes and regulations move from volumes of printed books to Internet-only publication.
While that change has decreased the need for storage space, it has also left large amounts of current and historic law in a vulnerable condition. The electronic files are not "authenticated" by any process or digital signature that ensures they remain unchanged and verifiable. In electronic-only form, they can be corrupted, degrade from hardware and software translations, or be targeted by hackers.
Stock is retired from his job as librarian at the Stamford state courthouse but he still chairs the Connecticut Bar Association's Law Librarians Section. He's backing a new law to ensure that electronic law is as hard to sabotage as it was when it was in paper volumes. The proposed law is called the Uniform Electronic Legal Materials Act, or UELMA, and it would require Connecticut to take steps to ensure electronic versions of laws and regulations are not hacked, counterfeited or degraded by viruses.
The responsibility for publishing state regs moved last year from the Judicial Branch's Commission on Legal Publications to the Secretary of the State's Office.
A handful of states have already taken action. Arkansas, for instance, has its appellate court decisions authenticated with digital signatures; Delaware and Indiana have digital certification of administrative codes. But, according to a 2011 white paper by the California Office of Legislative Counsel, other than court records admitted under the evidence code, "there are no statutory provisions in California that require the authentication of primary electronic legal materials."
Connecticut is in the same boat, says Stock, until it passes UELMA. He recently spoke with Senior Writer Thomas B. Scheffey.
LAW TRIBUNE: How long has this been a front-burner issue for law librarians?
STOCK: A very large national problem began to emerge at least six years ago. What law librarians began to observe was that more and more states were putting out statutes, regulations and other primary legal materials in digital form without saying whether or not they were official. They didn't have disclaimers saying it was not official, either. And even if it was official, few states gave people a way of establishing that it is the latest version and real. You had no certitude.
LAW TRIBUNE: Were the old ways better?
STOCK: With paper, as long as there were hard copy depositories, you could always trace your way back [to earlier versions of a law or regulation]. It was often extremely important to do that. The second problem with digital formats was that there was no assurance that previous versions would be preserved. In print, you always knew the previous versions were there. The same was true with agency regulations. [At the Stamford courthouse law library], I would save all the old pages and mark them as superseded by the new version. If you had to trace back and find what a certain electrical code was 30 years ago, you could find that out.