The Surprisingly Interesting History of the Virginia Code

Virginia Lawyer published an article in their February 2000 issue, by the UVA Law School’s Kent C. Olson, providing a fascinating history of the Code of Virginia. “The Path of Virginia Codification” explains how the Code of 1819 gave way to the Code of 1849, which was in turn replaced by the Code of 1887, then the Code of 1919, and finally the Code of 1950. Each new iteration didn’t just reflect changes in the law by intervening General Assembly sessions, but also a gradual rethinking of what a code should look like, how it should be organized, what purpose it should serve, and how it should be assembled.

Looking back, it seems ludicrous that the official collection of state laws would only be updated once a generation. All of the changes made by the biennial meetings of the legislature in the interim needed to be tracked, and a series of slim volumes had to be consulted to determine how the current law varied, if at all, from the last time that they were collected and printed.

The conclusion that I draw after reading this is that it’s time for the concept of printed legal volumes to disappear, at least as the primary venue for the dissemination of the text of the law. In most (all?) states, the printed edition is the canonical edition of the legal code, and everything else is basically for entertainment purposes only. Many states put a disclaimer on their code’s website to that effect. Illinois, for example:

This site contains provisions of the Illinois Compiled Statutes from databases that were created for the use of the members and staff of the Illinois General Assembly. The provisions have NOT been edited for publication, and are NOT in any sense the “official” text of the Illinois Compiled Statutes as enacted into law. The accuracy of any specific provision originating from this site cannot be assured, and you are urged to consult the official documents or contact legal counsel of your choice. This site should not be cited as an official or authoritative source.

One is tempted to conclude that states cannot long occupy this fantasy world, but the crudeness of most state’s websites for their codes support the notion that they may be able to spend many happy years in their world yet.