Help with State Laws Website
June 13, 2014 12:35 PM   Subscribe

I've built a website that combines all state constitutions in one place. I want to build another website that puts all state laws in one place. But state laws change much more often than state constitutions. And although states make their laws available online (usually in the form of revised statutes), their word count greatly exceeds the total word count of state constitution. It took six months to build the state constitutions website.

I want help or sponsorship to build this site, or some kind of financial or material support like hosting or technical support. Is this feasible? I thought about approaching non profit foundations or universities for support, but if I do that, I think I need to be a non-profit myself first. If I don't go that route, how easy is it to be sponsored for this kind of civic project by a commercial entity?
posted by CollectiveMind to Law & Government (13 answers total)
what will your site offer that i can't find on
posted by bruce at 12:39 PM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

To be entirely honest, I don't think that any non-profit or for-profit entity would fund an effort that duplicates already existing websites. It's not clear to me what the public interest in such an endeavor is, and until you can provide that public interest, I don't think you have much of a chance of funding.

Keep in mind that some states are a bit picky about people copying their laws (even if there is no legal justification for them to do so), so you will also have to consider the cost of potential legal fights associated with your project.
posted by saeculorum at 12:40 PM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

This sounds like a worthwhile hobby, but there are other public and private sources that make those materials available online. If I want fast and accurate and don't mind paying, I go to Westlaw or Lexis. If I am just idly looking for something, I go to the states' own sites, findlaw, or local law schools.

I think you're being optimistic about securing funding for this.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:52 PM on June 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree with the other responders that you're competing with for-profit entities (Westlaw, etc.) that already operate in this space. Unless you can present a compelling business case as to why someone should invest (either money or resources) in your project, you don't have a leg to stand on.

So, what differentiates your site from Westlaw or Lexis. "It's free!" is not an explanation here. Or, more accurately, it's not an explanation that will make people sit up and take notice.
posted by dfriedman at 12:56 PM on June 13, 2014

There is an additional difficulty in that several states (mine, for instance) already host websites that provide all of their statutes. Your proposal would duplicate information that is already out there for free and funded by taxpayers.
posted by Mr. Justice at 1:05 PM on June 13, 2014

I'm someone without access to Westlaw or Lexis (not counting friends I could ask to look things up for me, that is), and I still usually manage to find what I look for with internet searches. Thanks to frequent involvement in political discussions on the blue, I often look stuff up and usually find it without much trouble. The most difficult part, as a non-lawyer, is figuring out what terms to use that will return good results, and making sure I'm interpreting what I'm reading correctly.

Also, by going to the states' sites directly, I can be almost positive that I'm reading the most up-to-date version of a law or regulation.
posted by rtha at 1:07 PM on June 13, 2014

What would your site offer that isn't already available through this collection of links to state statutes (on Cornell Law School's "LII" site), state government webpages, and/or WestLaw/Lexis? Unless you can give a compelling answer to that question, I find it hard to imagine there'd be much interest in funding such a complex and ambitious project. You'd need something more than "It'd be nice to have it all in one place."

I mean, an attorney or law student with a need to access lots of different states' laws will presumably have access to WestLaw or Lexis. Laypeople will haphazardly Google whatever they're wondering about, and probably won't even think to look for a single website that contains all the statutes of all 50 states. A layperson will likely be concerned solely with their own state and not care if the website they're using also provides information on the other 49.

Even if there are some states whose statutes aren't accessible enough yet, that would at most justify putting those states' laws online. Each state would be a huge project unto itself — the fact that it's too hard to find Alabama statutes wouldn't provide much motivation to take the whole trouble of compiling all the New York statutes, if there happens to be a solid source for the latter.
posted by John Cohen at 2:03 PM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

You could try talking to the people running some of the existing sites for advice. There's Open States which does bill tracking or You might be able to work with them or the previously mentioned Legal Information Institute. I think there is still a lot of work that can be done to make laws more accessible to the public.

Here's a list of the members of the Free Access to Law Movement, just to give you an idea of what's out there and who is working on it.
posted by interplanetjanet at 2:37 PM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

It took six months to build the state constitutions website.

Why did this take so long? Anyone could make a page with links to the various state constitutions as hosted on their respective legislatures' website in an afternoon.

The answer to, "Is this feasible?" is "no". Anyone who wants to know a given state statute can simply use a search engine to find it e.g. by Googling for "Oklahoma statutes". The Internet already fulfills the need of anyone who wants this information free, more especially through Cornell's previously mentioned and excellent LLI site, which I refer to when I just need to quickly check a rule or statute for some minor issue. You will not do a better job than Cornell at this.

As a lawyer with a Westlaw subscription, I think your idea would of zero interest to practicing attorneys. When I am researching a statute, I just about always want the annotated version with hyperlinks to relevant case law and commentary.

This is not a feasible idea for a website that people will want to visit and use.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:41 PM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Came in here to tell you to get in touch with Carl Malamud at, but interplanetjanet beat me to it. Really, Carl is deep in all of the details of exactly this sort of project, with contacts and knowledge that'll take you years to independently re-create.
posted by straw at 2:59 PM on June 13, 2014

No, unfortunately, it's not feasible because it doesn't serve any public benefit or public or commercial need.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:45 PM on June 13, 2014

You're right about the high barriers to entry and technical and logistical hurdles, btw.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:47 PM on June 13, 2014

Response by poster: Tanizaki, because I didn't make a page with links to the various state constitutions as hosted on their respective legislatures' website in an afternoon.
posted by CollectiveMind at 7:47 PM on June 14, 2014

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