Monday, March 12, 2007

OpenCongress.org & Legal Materials Online

Featured on the most recent broadcast (and podcast) of the WNYC show On the Media is a terrific website called OpenCongress.org which is a very user-friendly site for tracking Congress. You can find out how any Senator or Congress member voted on any bill, and you can readily search pending legislation. You can even get RSS feeds updating you about action on particular bills. OpenCongress pulls much of the underlying material from Congress's own website, Thomas, which is a terrific resource but not quite as easy to use and a bit more staid. For example, it's easy to use either site to find pending bills and what bills an individual Senator or Representative has sponsored, but OpenCongress also gives juicy tidbits such as trends in the overall voting record of individual members of Congress. It also has a comment feature which should become valuable as the site grows.

That said, the OpenCongress guest on On the Media was a little unfair in suggesting that Thomas is an inadequate tool. It's pretty useful by itself and, more importantly, likely to incorporate features of OpenCongress on its own as time goes by. Interestingly enough, the Sunlight Foundation (the people behind OpenCongress) would be happy for Congress itself to provide this information, and that seems to be the standard path to govt-maintained websites. For example, by now most courts maintain websites where they post recent decisions, but in the early days of the web, such materials could be found only on third-party sites. As the courts' own sites became more useful, many of the third-party sites disappeared. WestLaw and Lexis still have pay sites, mostly, I think, because of the ability to search across multiple databases simultaneously and because the official sites rarely include materials going back more than a decade. But eventually, I suspect, the business model of WestLaw and Lexis will not be viable.

In the medium term, organizations like the Sunlight Foundation are making real what had formerly been only stylized assumptions about the openness and accessibility of the legal system. As someone who follows the courts, I hope the next step will be a free, easy-to-use version of PACER, the program for accessing filings (such as briefs, exhibits, etc) in the federal district courts. I'm ambivalent about the ultimate fate of WestLaw. Because West owns FindLaw and Foundation Press, which pay me for some of my work, I have a financial interest in its continued success. But as a matter of public policy, I like the idea of freebies.