In a digital world, government officials should be putting “all the law” in online databases everyone may view for free

(Essay by Doug Wilson, an FOI Oklahoma Inc. board member and attorney)

What price justice?

In America, when government officials adopt a mentality of "us vs. them," the rule of men tramples underfoot the rule of law and democracy fails.

In a lawsuit brought by a client under the Oklahoma Open Records Act, I recently took the sworn deposition of a gentleman who has worked for the State of Oklahoma for more than 25 years. At the time of his deposition, he was employed by the Ad Valorem Division of the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

Being uncertain of just exactly what I was asking, he responded with a question of his own. After I clarified my question for him, his response took me by surprise:

25-year State Employee: But you're saying John Q. Public comes in and asks and he says, "I want this information." Okay? Am I understanding your question?

Mr. Wilson: Yes, sir. Under the Open Records Act, the government of the people by the people for the people.

25-year State Employee: Where's that government at?

In his defense, maybe he intended his comment to be tongue-in-cheek, but it didn't strike me that way. The phrase, a "government of the people, by the people, for the people," comes from the last line of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

. . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not
have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a
new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by
the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.

In America, government should never be "us versus them," but simply "US." When it's just US, it's not hard to understand why the state's digital database(s) of court information is made available at cost to anyone. It's just US.

Money should never stand between a person and justice. Equal Justice for all is worth dying for. Equal Justice for those who can afford it, not so much.

Many people have heard the oft-repeated judicial refrain: "Ignorance of the law is no excuse."

In the digital world in which we live, when we can store entire libraries inside a laptop, those in government should be tripping over each other trying to put "all the law" in one big digital database where every person can view it without charge and find whatever help he or she needs to stay on course.

When a government body in these United States of America charges people more than cost just to see and copy the law, somewhere, Abraham Lincoln most surely weeps.

Douglas A. Wilson
Attorney and Counselor at Law
521 South Hafner Street, Suite B
Stillwater, OK 74074-3980

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.