Completing the Incomplete Code of Maryland Laws

Imagine your boss hands you a 5,000-page end-of-the-year report with no organizational titles or section headings, then asks you to find the part about the first week of June– now. You start scanning line after line, page after page, scribbling notes in the margins and getting hopelessly lost. As the clock runs out and the panic sets in you raise a desperate cry: “But why are there no section summary titles???”

That’s the exactly what Maryland citizens face today.  All 31,969 sections of the Maryland law lack section summaries that organize and explain the law, help you to navigate it, and find what you need within it. Article names and section numbers remain your only guides. For example, if you’re an entrepreneur looking to open a restaurant, you might need to find the laws on liquor licensing.  You visit Marylandcode.org and click on the article called “Alcoholic Beverages”–but that will bring you here.  The Maryland State Government sticks you with more than a hundred disorganized sections with names like “g2b-1-102”, most of which you don’t want or need. You’ll have to sift through every single one just to find the one section you need to get your new business off the ground.

It seems crazy.  How can the law exist without basic navigation aids? Maryland elected officials, lawyers, entrepreneurs, pet-owners, moms– at some point, we all need to know what the state law contains.  And it turns out that those vital section summaries do exist, but they were created and copyrighted by a private sector vendor who keeps them on lockdown.  Neither everyday Marylanders nor the state government itself is allowed to reuse and republish them.  The law remains incomplete, disorganized and inaccessible.

This presents a conundrum to everyone who believes that in America, the law should be open, understandable and accessible to all.  Since creating the first modern edition of the Maryland law in May 2013, the OpenGov Foundation team has found three different ways to solve the pressing problem of section-summary-less law: copy the private-sector vendors’ section titles, and face the stiff consequences of copyright violation; post the raw, disorganized law on the Internet and wish everyone good luck; or create do-it-yourself section summaries that are restriction-free, reusable and in the public domain.  Because our mission remains to make the law more accessible and understandable for everyone – whatever it takes – we chose the third path.

Right now, we’re three months into the project of summarizing every single section of the Maryland law.  Do we have a secret army of lawyers?  Heck no.  Thanks to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, we don’t need one.  Hundreds of ordinary people have been reading individual sections of the Maryland law and creating summaries for each that everyday Marylanders can understand.  When finished, we’ll gift the complete, organized and summarized law back to its true owners – the people of Maryland – and publish all the restriction-free section summaries on MarylandCode.org and Github for anyone to reuse and improve upon.

Expect this first complete, summarized and restriction-free edition of the Maryland law by the end of January.

Questions? Comments? Want to help? We’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line at sayhello@opengovfoundation.org or Tweet us at @FoundOpenGov.