Federal agency challenges private control of federal court opinions
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Government Printing Office has signed a letter challenging private copyright and control of federal judicial opinions and citations after the Justice Department announced that it would reject plans to operate a national system of legal opinions in the public domain, rather than continuing to rely on private companies to publish the opinions.
The letter to Attorney General Janet Reno and Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin asks that the government bring the public into plans to procure new computer-assisted legal research services by soliciting public comment before going to companies with requests for proposals to contract for the services.
The letter followed a meeting in late July between Justice Department officials and a group of legal researchers, librarians and Congressional and GPO officials at which Justice announced that it had rejected requests by many of those present.
The researchers had asked the Justice Department to place legal opinions and citations in the public domain in a system operated by the government at affordable costs rather than by private companies at costs that preclude full public access to the opinions.
The Taxpayer Assets Project, a public interest project associated with Ralph Nader, has for several years led efforts to gain a publicly available legal research system, noting that costs of using current electronic legal research systems are often prohibitive.
In rejecting the plans, the Justice Department said that it expected only two firms — West Publishing and Mead Data Central — would be able to bid on the new contract to provide a legal citation system.
The GPO is an arm of Congress, not of the executive branch.
Reacting to the letter, West Publishing representatives wrote the government officials that nationalizing legal information out of a central “official” source would drive current providers of the information out of business and would inexorably lead to inefficiency, delay and waste. They also suggested that Congress might refuse to fund dissemination of controversial decisions.