What We Can Learn About Legal Research from the Supreme Court in Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org

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There will surely be rafts of analysis and discussion in the days, weeks, and months to come concerning today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org. And while interesting issues abound, what this law librarian found most striking at first glance were the pronouncements by the Justices about the importance of annotated codes. Indeed, it is quite rare that courts, let alone the Supreme Court, tell us what they think about legal research products. So, here we will eschew opining on the merits of the decision or its significance, but will focus instead on the veritable feast of what the high court has to say about annotated codes, “the most useful resources in most statutory research,”[1] as well as other advice offered about conducting legal research.

The question in this case was whether annotations to Georgia’s official statutory code were copyrightable under the venerable “government edicts doctrine,” last considered by the Court in 1888. Georgia argued that they were, and a nonprofit activist organization, Public.Resource.Org, argued they weren’t. The Court, in a 5-4 split, agreed with the latter. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, and both Justices Thomas and Ginsburg wrote dissenting opinions. Despite their differences, all three justices offer insightful—if motivated—instruction on the publication and use of legal resources. We can combine these insights into a clear enough lesson on conducting legal research prepared by those most supremely qualified to teach it.

Annotated codes are “a valuable research tool.”[2] This is because “annotations provide commentary and resources that the legislature has deemed relevant to understanding its laws.”[3] “The annotations generally include summaries of judicial deci­sions applying a given provision, summaries of any perti­nent opinions of the . . . attorney general, and a list of re­lated law review articles and similar reference materials. In addition, the annotations often include editor’s notes that provide information about the origins of the statutory text, such as whether it derives from a particular judicial decision or resembles an older provision that has been con­strued by . . . courts.”[4] “Annota­tions aid the legal researcher, and that aid is enhanced when annotations are printed beneath or alongside the rel­evant statutory text.”[5] In Georgia and in every jurisdiction, a private company “and its army of research­ers perform the lion’s share of the work in drafting the an­notations.”[6]

The annotations about cases “should ‘accurately reflect the facts, holding, and statutory construction’ adopted by the court.”[7] But “the annotations do not carry the bind­ing force of law. They simply summarize independent sources of legal information and consolidate them in one place. Thus, . . . annotations serve a similar function to other copyrighted research tools provided by private parties such as the American Law Reports and Westlaw, which also contain information of great ‘practical significance.’ ”[8]

“[A]nno­tations comment on statutes already enacted.”[9] Case notes in annotated codes can be particularly valuable because they “summarize judicial decisions construing the statute years later.”[10] “The annotations are neutrally cast; they do not opine on whether the summarized case was correctly decided.”[11]

But “concurrences and dissents . . . carry no legal force.”[12] “At an elementary level, it is true that the judg­ment is the only part of a judicial decision that has legal effect. But it blinks reality to ignore that every word of a judicial opinion—whether it is a majority, a concurrence, or a dissent—expounds upon the law in ways that do not map neatly on to the legislative function. Setting aside sum­mary decisions, the reader of a judicial opinion will always gain critical insight into the reasoning underlying a judicial holding by reading all opinions in their entirety.”[13] We encourage you to do so, especially for this case, lest you miss other important information about using annotated codes or reading judicial opinions.

There are several other fascinating tidbits about legal information products, as both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas discuss the costs of legal resources and the incentives for creating them.[14] Justice Thomas wonders aloud about the 19th century meanings of the terms “headnote” and “syllabus.”[15] And finally, we learn the unsurprising fact that the Court “is privileged to have access to numerous research resources.”[16]

Indeed, on this last point, we can all recognize how special it is to share such a privilege – and to make sure you’re getting the most out of those available from our library, consult our research guides or contact a reference librarian. While we’re not Supreme Court justices, we may have some additional wisdom to share about legal research.



[1] Kent C. Olson, Principles of Legal Research 54 (2nd ed. 2015).

[2] Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org, No. 18-1150, dissenting op. at 17 (U.S. Apr. 27, 2020) (Thomas, J.).

[3] Id., slip op. at 11 (Roberts, C.J.).

[4] Id., at 2.

[5] Id., dissenting op. at 4 (Ginsburg, J.).

[6] Id., slip op. at 3 (Roberts, C.J.) (citation omitted). But Georgia presents “an unusual case because most official codes are not annotated and most annotated codes are not official. Id., at 4. Even still, “25 other jurisdictions—22 States, 2 Territories, and the District of Columbia— . . . rely on arrangements similar to Georgia’s to produce annotated codes.” Id., dissenting op. at 1 (Thomas, J.).

[7] Id., dissenting op. at 3 (Ginsburg, J.).

[8] Id., dissenting op. at 8 (Thomas, J.).

[9] Id., dissenting op. at 2 (Ginsburg, J.).

[10] Id., at 2 n.1.

[11] Id., at 3.

[12] Id., slip op. at 15 (Roberts, C.J.).

[13] Id., dissenting op. at 13 (Thomas, J.).

[14] Id., slip op. at 16-17 (Roberts C.J.); dissenting op. at 17 (Thomas, J.)

[15] Id., at 14 n.7.

[16] Id., at 17.


Posted by Aaron S. Kirschenfeld on Mon. April 27, 2020 5:00 PM
Categories: Uncategorized


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