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Using the Law at Work: Finding the Answers Yourself

by Stephen Elias and Janet Portman
Copyright © 1995 Nolo Press

A high school vice-principal is told by the principal that all sports teams are to be tested for drugs, including the "Mathaletes," who compete in mathematics tournaments. The vice-principal thinks this is ridiculous.

A police officer hears that a person he arrested for shoplifting, who has two past felony convictions, has been charged under the state's "three strikes" law, and that the judge must impose a life sentence if he is convicted. The officer is appalled and wonders if he can do anything about it.

A city parks commissioner is told by her boss to issue a permit to the Ku Klux Klan to erect a cross in the city's rose garden. Wouldn't that mean that the city endorses the views of the Klan, she wants to know?

The jobs of these three people, like all public employees, are frequently affected by new laws or court decisions. As is often the case in bureaucracies, they are told what to do, but not why.

Employees at this level won't be liable, legally, if a policy handed down from their superiors proves to be illegal. But they may well want to question a directive that strikes them as illegal. How do they find an answer?

They may be understandably reluctant to go over their supervisors' heads to talk to government attorneys. But with a little initiative, they can find the answers for themselves.

Venturing Into the Law Library

Even the smallest law libraries provide the type of information a public employee is likely to need: state and federal statutes, constitutions, court decisions and agency regulations.

Medium-sized and larger law libraries also have a wealth of other materials that can help you get a better handle on your question. For example, you can read a background discussion of a legal topic in a legal encyclopedia, treatise, or law journal article.

If you aren't a lawyer, you may wonder whether they will even let you in the door at the local law library. But most law libraries are publicly funded and open to everyone as a matter of right. You can almost certainly find a law library in your county courthouse.

Once you're there, the first thing to do is to ask a law librarian (most libraries have at least one) to point you in the right direction. Most law librarians are happy to help you find a specific item such as a case, statute or regulation--as long as you are specific enough about what you want. (Law librarians will not, however, help you interpret the results of your reading.)

If your question concerns a recent change in the law that has hit the newspapers--for example, the Supreme Court ruling that high schools can conduct random drug tests of student athletes--the librarian will know exactly where to look. If the change isn't headline material, the librarian can still very quickly get you to the right place. If your question requires an understanding of settled law, the librarian will likely send you to a book that discusses the topic.

What They Learned

  • When the vice-principal asked about student drug tests, the librarian gave her a copy of Vernonia School District v. Acton, a recent U.S. Supreme Court case. She learned that the Court approved of blanket drug testing of student athletes because there was an "immediate crisis" of drug use at the school, led by the athletes, and that officials feared drug-caused athletic injuries. The vice-principal's school does not have widespread drug problems, and the Mathaletes do not compete in physical activity; on the other hand, the Mathaletes are highly respected students, and the principal suspects that several of them use drugs. She decided to recommend that only these math scholars be tested.

  • The police officer was steered to an article that explained how the "three strikes" law requires persons with two prior serious felony convictions to receive a 25-year to life sentence if convicted of a new felony. The officer learned that the suspect's crime of petty theft was chargeable as a felony because the suspect had a prior conviction for petty theft, but that the District Attorney could charge it as a misdemeanor instead. He decided to speak to the District Attorney about how to charge the crime.

  • The parks commissioner was given a copy of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Capitol Square Review Board v. Pinette, an Ohio case involving a similar permit request by the Ku Klux Klan. An Ohio law directed that the Statehouse plaza be used as a forum for public discussion and activities. As long as the plaza was open to all on an equal basis, and the city didn't sponsor any activity there, the Court concluded that no one was likely to think the city endorsed the Klan's message, and a permit had to be issued. But the parks commissioner thought her city's situation was different--the rose garden had never been the site of political rallies, and she thought some citizens would view the cross as a city-endorsed symbol. She decided to raise the matter with her supervisor.

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