The basic concept behind The State Decoded is both simple and obvious: create a platform to display laws in a nice, understandable way, using the data already present in those laws. So why hadn’t anybody done it before?
Because it’s too hard to do perfectly.
The State Decoded is not perfect, by design. Its definition scraper may never identify 100% of defined words within legal codes, because legislators are inconsistent about how they write laws. Cross-references will not always been identified and linked, because they’re legislators are inconsistent about how they write those, too. Some laws’ hierarchical structures may not be indented properly, because they’re labelled inconsistently. The State Decoded’s interface with court ruling APIs may never return only the court rulings that affect a specific law, as opposed to rulings that merely mention a law, because courts don’t provide metadata.
I’m not sure that it’s technologically possible, at present, to solve these and a dozen other problems inherent in The State Decoded. Some very bright minds have looked at creating a State Decoded-like system over the past few years, and decided against it because of insurmountable obstacles. They were right about the scope of the problems, but I think they were wrong to conclude that they shouldn’t proceed anyway, and create a system that’s 99% of the way there.
Just look at a few state code websites. I picked a few out at random: South Carolina, Missouri, New York, and Maine. These are awful. Just terrible. The percentage of citizens who are capable of navigating and understanding these is a rounding error. Having embedded definitions for 99% of legal terms, cross-references linked 99% of the time, and linked court cases that are good-not-great—that’s all far, far better than what the citizens of these states have access to right now.
Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, the radar pioneer who created England’s system to detect approaching Luftwaffe, said of England’s radar system: “give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late and the best never comes.”
The State Decoded is the third best system. The second best doesn’t exist yet, but I look forward to somebody creating it and obviating The State Decoded. The best may never come. And that’s OK.
From a legal researcher’s standpoint …
As long as the definition scraper gave citations to the definition and stated its limitations, an imperfect tool would be worthwhile. Probably not what you’d like to hear, but Westlaw and Lexis should definitely look into adding such a tool to their services.
Probably not what you’d like to hear, but Westlaw and Lexis should definitely look into adding such a tool to their services.
I’m quite happy to hear that! This project is open source—they could use The State Decoded to accomplish that. :) I support better legal tools, whether for the general public or for law firms.