Friday, November 20, 2009

Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Letter

From the Government Documents department...

In the first Thanksgiving proclamation, George Washington established November 26, 1798 as a day dedicated "to service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be." Read the full text of the proclamation here. Every president since has issued a similar proclamation -- expect for Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and, most notably, Thomas Jefferson.

In 1802, President Jefferson wrote a letter to a Baptist church in Danbury, Connecticut, in thanks for their praise of him as the newly-elected president. He also used the letter to explain his reasons for not issuing a proclamation of thanksgiving and prayer:

"religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions."

This letter has become an important and, some say, revealing document from which the phrase, "a wall of separation between church and state" originates. This letter has been cited at least five times by members of the Supreme Court to support the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Some argue that, because this letter was penned many years after the Bill of Rights was written, it is not a good indicator of the intentions of that document's authors. Others feel that, as author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson certainly played an important role in the formation of the country, and his opinions, at whatever time, should be considered. Either way, Jefferson's description of the separatist wall endures as a metaphor for church-state relations.

For more history, go to A Wall of Separation, presented by the Library of Congress. Here, you can link to the text of the Danbury letter and view the original document.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Providing access to CONAN online

From the Government Documents department...

Last month, Senator Russell Feingold, who currently sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to the Government Printing Office (GPO) requesting that the publication of an important legal research tool undergo a revision. That tool is The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation.

CONAN, as it’s called, is published every ten years as a single volume, with biennial supplements published in the interim. It’s a cumbersome tome with incomplete coverage, due to the lag time between publication of the supplements. It is available in PDF via GPO Access, but the files are quite large, making navigation of the text impracticable. Furthermore, the electronic version is simply a reproduction of the static print version, without any updates or changes to the material over time. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) does update the material regularly, but does not make the new information available to the public until the next biennial supplement is published. Only members of Congress are privy to the updated content; CRS makes it available to them via the Congressional intranet in XML format. In his letter, Senator Feingold urges the GPO to make the updated content available to the general public as well, thereby granting equal access to everyone easily and inexpensively.

We spotlighted CONAN in this blog in September, just after we received the 2008 biennial supplement in print. Unfortunately, it is already out-of-date, and we won’t receive the next supplement until 2011. If Congress has access to the most current information in a format that is easily searchable, why shouldn’t we?

Carl Malamud introduces

From the Government Documents department...

Carl Malamud, a public domain advocate and champion of transparency in government, is determined to make public information more accessible. He has already succeeded by opening access to SEC filings through a free, online database known as EDGAR. He is also responsible for Fedflix and has contributed millions of bankruptcy and Federal District Court documents to RECAP, the new Firefox plugin that captures documents from PACER. Now, Mr. Malamud has created, a “distributed, open source, authenticated registry and repository of all primary legal materials in the United States.” This site has three goals:

  • To develop law.Gov as a central tool for access to all United States primary legal materials, with the hope of creating streamlined, efficient and consistent access for all citizens

  • To systematically capture, preserve and maintain all primary United States legal materials which are born digital

  • To make all United States primary legal materials freely accessible to all its citizens

Mr. Malamud believes that public documents and the information they contain serve as the operating system of our democracy; we all have a right to view, read, and utilize these documents without any bureaucratic or financial barriers. As his new project,, evolves, we should be able to access information that is currently only available for a fee levied by the government (as is the case with PACER) or through subscription-based services. This is definitely a development to watch.

See also: America's Operating System, Open Source by Carl Malamud, O'Reily Radar, October 15, 2009

An Effort to Upgrade a Court Archive System to Free and Easy, New York Times, February 12, 2009

Transparency Chic, Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2009