National Survey of State Laws, Part I

National Survey of State Laws
Richard Leiter

Who doesn’t want to be an author? I always loved to write and jumped at any opportunity to do so. In fact, I came this close to graduating with an undergraduate degree in creative writing. After reality set in and I got my first academic law library job at the University of Texas’s famed Tarlton Law Library, my mentor and eventual friend, Professor Roy Mersky, recommended, among many other things, that I pursue writing book reviews for American Reference Books Annual (ARBA). He had been an ARBA contributor for many years. One of Roy’s reasons for writing for ARBA was that he got to keep the books! Frankly, he often had young staff members write his reviews for him.

ARBA relied on word of mouth for recruiting authors, and if you were selected, you filled out a profile about your interests to specify the types and how many books you wanted to review per month. Since ARBA only required about 200 words per review, they were easy to crank out. After three or four years of writing reviews for ARBA, I had reviewed about thirty or forty books. It was an excellent experience that not only forced me to think clearly about how to evaluate and recommend a book, but also taught me to be careful with words. I learned to be succinct, even pithy.

But it was the call that I got from Gale Research that surprised me. I knew that authors read my reviews because I would occasionally receive mail from authors who had an issue (sometimes even praise and thanks!) with my review. Gale Research was, at the time, an independent reference book publisher that published a wide-ranging catalog, including many standard reference works such as the Encyclopedia of Associations. But they had no law titles and were interested in expanding into the field of law. The development editors at Gale had noticed my many reviews of law books and asked me to write a prospectus on the status of legal reference books and specifically asked what, if any, subjects were not yet covered. The way my contact at Gale, Bob Thomas, put it, “What reference books on legal topics had not yet been published?” One of the things that reference librarians frequently encountered but had no ready answer for were questions about surveys of laws in all 50 states. At the time, Shepard’s had published a book called, The Lawyer’s Reference Manual, which contained just over thirty 50-state surveys. It was originally published in 1983 and was rarely updated, but it was the only source of its kind.

Bob Thomas, who sounded exactly like Vincent Price on the phone, asked me, if Gale were to publish such a book of 50-state surveys, what laws should be covered?1 I told him. He then asked what it would look like. I didn’t like the format of the Shepard’s surveys and suggested ways that it could be improved. Eventually, he told me that Gale Research had decided to publish a new title called National Survey of State Laws. I was thrilled that someone was taking my ideas seriously, and was thankful to finally have a resource that would be useful to so many reference librarians! And then he asked, “How would you like to write it?” At the time, I nearly fell over in my chair.

In the end, I agreed, of course, and it took about five years to produce the first edition. I learned many valuable lessons about state laws and state law research; so many, I could fill a book with them! For instance, I learned that the language of statutes is far from uniform. For example, when we were reviewing proofs of the first edition I noticed that I didn’t have a code section for the method of execution for Montana, which included "lethal injection," in the Death Penalty chapter. I called Eric Welsh (reference librarian extraordinaire) at Regent University Law Library, where I was director at the time, and asked him to run a search on Lexis and find the citation. This was 1992, and it seemed to both of us that nothing could be simpler, even though there was no web interface and searching was done on a command line—Lexis was still full text and we already knew the answer; we were only looking for a code section number. But searches of “lethal injection” or “death penalty” or “method of execution” were to no avail. Eric finally found the code section but he had to use the print copy of the code. We discovered that the method of execution was not in the Criminal Code, nor the Code of Criminal Procedure, but in the Penal Code, or some such code, and the section in question nowhere used the terms "lethal injection" nor "method of execution", or any variation on these terms. Rather it used a long euphemism, something like, “the intravenous administration by a qualified medical professional of a super fast-acting barbiturate in such dosage as to bring about unconsciousness and death.” We came to find out that each state has its own way of saying the same thing. Almost no state ever uses the term, “lethal injection,” nor does any state use the same language.

Over the years of working on this book I’ve come to learn that each state uses its own language to frame its own laws, even when they’re nearly identical to laws in other states. This is partly because state legislators are concerned with the laws of their own states and rarely borrow the language of other states. It’s a point of pride. Another reason is that many legislators are not lawyers and are not professionally trained to discuss or think about the law; therefore, language is often different from state to state. This phenomenon is one of the features of our democracy in which laypeople may be elected to public office.

I can relate many more anecdotes about interesting things we encountered as we put together the first edition of the book. But the excitement really began after it was published. First, the reviews for the book were very positive, which was gratifying. But then all heck broke loose: The New York Public Library Office of Reference and Information Services selected NSSL as “one of the outstanding reference resources of the last year.” (It’s like the Tony Awards for reference books, but with no ceremony!) A few months later it made Wilson Library Quarterly’s list of “Field Tested Reference Resources.” The first edition even surprised Gale Research, which at the time was an old, very experienced reference book publisher, and went through three printings. Various editions are held by libraries in reference sections all over the world! I’ve even found copies at the Shanghai Public Library and Stratford on Avon’s public library!

Next: NSSL finds a new home in HeinOnline.


1. At the time that I was working with Gale on this project, I was working at Littler, Mendelson, Mastiff & Tichy, a law firm in San Francisco. Bob Thomas called often as their interest in the project progressed. Eventually, the receptionist at the firm had to ask who was calling me. Bob sounded so much like Vincent Price that she began to suspect that it really was Price using an alias!