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On Monday, September 22nd a group of experts joined the Advisory Committee on Transparency and the Sunlight Foundation to discuss the increasingly complicated nature of public access to law.

Laws passed by Congress and state legislatures are far from the only documents that have the power of law. Technical standards, secret court opinions, municipal regulations, complex international trade documents, and more touch every American. These are often nearly impossible, and sometimes illegal, for the public to access.

Participants in the panel discussion, moderated by the Sunlight Foundation’s Matt Rumsey, covered the full scope of this topic from the technical challenges that go along with making the law accessible to the legal arguments used by government to hide the law — and by watchdogs to open it up.

Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel and policy adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union, highlighted some of his organization’s efforts to open up legal documents that have the force of law. These documents, while never passed by a legislature or reviewed by a court, guide executive branch policy in cases related to torture, targeted killings, surveillance, and more. He used these examples to highlight a number of serious dangers associated with secret law and forcefully argued that making law in secret and withholding it from public knowledge de-legitimizes the lawmaking process and leads to bad law.

Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, focused on a few specific reforms that could significantly improve public access to law. She noted some simple reforms to the Freedom of Information Act, that could become law soon, may make it easier to gain access to vital executive branch legal documents. She also highlighted the troublesome issue of “access for pay” that comes up when private companies are given control over legal documents and then hide those documents behind paywalls.

Daniel Schuman, policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, set the historical stage by explaining that access to law has been baked into American democracy since the start of our union. While citizens have always had an expectation of easy access, the Internet changed everything by making it exponentially easier to disseminate and access information. Given technological changes and the power of our government, Schuman argued, citizen access must be proportional to the law’s ability to affect lives.

As the only government employee on the panel it might have been expected that V. David Zvenyach, general counsel to the Washington, DC City Council, would feel differently than the other panelists. But, that was far from the case. David detailed some of his efforts, both as a government employee and private citizen, to make the laws of the District of Columbia more easily available to its citizens. He particularly highlighted some of the technical — and contractual — challenges associated with making complex legal documents available online.

All of the speakers agreed that public access to law is vital to a healthy, well functioning democracy.

Unfortunately, due to some technical difficulties, we are not able to share an audio or video recording of the event. You can view a more detailed wrap up from U.S. News and World Report.

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