Law library failing, but can it fix problems?
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
Cost per month: over $800. Users per month: 4.5. Their satisfaction: very low.
Those are the vital statistics of the county's law library system,
two computers in Willows and one in Orland, hooked up to the legal
research site LexisNexis.
With the governing board reconvening recently after sitting idle for
four years, debate revolves around a couple questions debate Is a
better computer network needed — or a more user-friendly system?
And is the law library competition for the lawyers who administer it,
creating a conflict of interest?
Judge Angus Saint-Evens argues that the current use of computers is
better than spending large sums on buying and updating law books.
"Retrieval of information is so much easier from a computer than
going to a multivolume room," he says.
But he adds that programs like LexisNexis are "pretty (easy) for a
person skilled in law — but for a person who's not, it can be
Butte County law librarian John Zorbas is more firmly on the side of books.
"You could use LexisNexis to get access to all those cases," Mr.
Zorbas says. "But there's no substitute for having the cases by
It took this reporter 90 minutes on the LexisNexis system to locate
the three pages of basic state family law code, with annotation, on
But looking again three weeks later, it took him only five minutes to
find the same material, without annotations, from a year-old, $20 copy
of standard California codes.
Law library gadfly Dan Bailey says the problem is systemic — lawyers
are governing their competition.
"If you are an attorney there is more business if your clients do not
understand the law," he says. "If one learns the law one does not need
to pay an attorney."
Mr. Zorbas, who passed the bar and practiced law for several years
before becoming a law librarian, sharply disagreed. He was emphatic
that "lawyers don't see (the law library) as competition."
"We do a lot of things for people that public defenders won't do for
people because they don't want to get involved," Mr. Zorbas.
He cited examples like record expungements, early terminations of
probation, and infractions — cases for which public defenders would
not be paid.
"We do a lot to help people get ready for first contact with
lawyers," he added, saying such preparation helped the prospective
lawyers of law library users understand the case.
Thus, Mr. Zorbas said, the lawyers would be less likely to demand "a
$1,500 retainer" to proceed.
Mr. Zorbas exudes enthusiasm about the Butte County law library
system, planning elaborate publicity events like a black-tie dinner
and relaying his own joy at helping people.
Back in Glenn County, these are fewer roses; some in charge share the
basic pessimism of Mr. Bailey, but for far different reasons.
"I just wish the system was as simple as, what do I do if this
happens to me, press a button and get an answer," said Judge
Saint-Evens, effectively the chairman of the law library board. "But
it doesn't work that way. And it doesn't work that way in a law office
either. Legal issues are horribly complicated and for every answer you
get, you'll get three more questions."
"There are no issues that are clear-cut and one-sided. It's hard to
ferret out with books, let alone a computer."
Mr. Bailey argues the library is important in solving larger
problems, referring tangentially to his friend Doc Bogart's fights
with the county but saying the scope is greater than that.
With an effective library, "a county counsel may find he is having
to oppose a private citizen that actually reads the County Ordinances
and is not easily pushed around by county staff," Mr. Bailey says. "A
private citizen educated in the law is a citizen that is harder to
control or manipulate."