THE United States government has erected barricades to keep citizens away from one of the nation's most important collections of public information, even though taxpayer dollars pay for this computerized system. JURIS, the Justice Department's electronic information system, is one of the world's most valuable legal databases. Besides the standard collection of case law precedents, the system includes statutes, regulations, presidential executive orders, and foreign treaties, as well as vast amounts of ad ministrative law.
Advances in computer technology have made it increasingly inexpensive and easy to provide public access to government databases. Even though court opinions and laws are among the most fundamental sources of information citizens can get from their government, the Justice Department insists on making this information inaccessible to the average American.
The US Department of Justice pays West Publishing Company millions of dollars to "rent" legal information, which consists primarily of public records, in computer formats. Under its agreements with West, the Justice Department is not allowed to provide public access to the JURIS database.
While federal statutes, regulations, court decisions, and other public records are not subject to copyright, JURIS also includes West's copyrighted legal analysis. The Justice Department will not require West to separate the copyrighted materials from the public documents, so West is able to exercise copyright restrictions over vast amounts of public data.
The market for on-line access to legal information is dominated by two firms, West and Mead Data Central, which own LEXIS. Prices for access to these databases average an estimated $4 to $6 per minute. If the government made JURIS open to the public, citizens could dial in and search legal documents for a few dollars an hour.
The West contract for supplying the JURIS data is now up for re-bid, and hundreds of academics, librarians, lawyers, computer users, and other interested citizens are asking Attorney General Janet Reno to provide public access to JURIS.
The public's right to know is increasingly being defined in terms of an ability to pay, as valuable government databases are rationed to the most affluent citizens. A democratic society deserves better. Citizens should have convenient and affordable access to this information.