Where to find them
One of The Legal Genealogist‘s standard recommendations to folks heading out on research trips is to tuck a copy of the state’s records access laws into their research bags, in case they encounter a clerk or other official who hasn’t read it lately.
Then, when the clerk or official starts to say no to a request for access to records, the researcher can pull it out and — gently and politely and never ever confrontationally — ask the official to point out where in the law it says that this particular record can’t be accessed.
This isn’t for those times when the clerk says that the records can only be seen on Thursday afternoons from 1-4 p.m. or that there’s a fee for copying the records or that you have to wear white gloves (or can’t wear white gloves) when you handle the records. Those are all time, place and manner restrictions that may very well be within the official’s discretion.
No, the law comes out of the research bag when the answer flatly is “no: you can’t see those records at all.”
So… where do you find the state’s records access laws to tuck into your research bag to take with you?
This absolute gem of a website with its Legislative Source Book has a ton of information about legislative research resources, but this one page is what we need here: it pulls together all of the websites for all of the state legislatures across the country, with links directly to the state statutes and state administrative rules for each state.
When you land on the website for the state of interest, by clicking on a link for its code or statutes or laws (the terms are interchangeable), you will need to search for the access law, and there you may need to be a little creative.
The problem is that not every state uses the same language in its statute, and the laws aren’t all called records access laws. So you may need to think about the possible terms to use when you’re looking for whatever law the state has. Options to use include:
• Open records;
• Public records;
• Records access;
• Freedom of information;
• Inspect records;
• Right of access;
• Right to inspect.
And remember that you may need to use the advance search features of the legislative website if it offers them so that you can do what’s called boolean searching — where you search for one word within a certain distance of another.
Another tool to use to locate the exact section of the state statutes or laws that talks about records access is the Open Government Guide of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It provides links to each of the states and then to the code or statute sections for each state. (Use the link for “View the PDF” on the right of each page.)
The only hitch there is that the guide hasn’t been updated since 2011 for most states and you’ll need to bring your research up to date — five years is a long time in legislative terms! Still, doing the research when you know that Indiana’s access law was in Indiana Code § 5-14-3 in 2011 is a whole lot faster than starting from scratch to find where in the code the law appears today. (FYI: it’s still there.)
And, by the way, don’t forget that some states have more than just a statutory commitment to records access; they’ve actually enshrined it in their constitutions. An example is California where, in 2004, voters added a Sunshine Amendment to the state constitution in Article I, §3(b): “The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business, and, therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.”
Just another way that knowing the law makes us better — and more effective — genealogists.