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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
to be tested for drugs, including the "Mathaletes," who compete in
tournaments. The vice-principal thinks this is ridiculous.
A police officer hears that a person he arrested for shoplifting, who
past felony convictions, has been charged under the state's "three
and that the judge must impose a life sentence if he is convicted. The
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
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
affected by new laws or court decisions. As is often the case in
they are told what to do, but not why.
Employees at this level won't be liable, legally, if a policy handed
their superiors proves to be illegal. But they may well want to
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
Venturing Into the Law Library
Even the smallest law libraries provide the type of information a
is likely to need: state and federal statutes, constitutions, court
Medium-sized and larger law libraries also have a wealth of other
can help you get a better handle on your question. For example, you can
background discussion of a legal topic in a legal encyclopedia,
treatise, or law
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
your county courthouse.
Once you're there, the first thing to do is to ask a law librarian
libraries have at least one) to point you in the right direction. Most
librarians are happy to help you find a specific item such as a case,
regulation--as long as you are specific enough about what you want.
librarians will not, however, help you interpret the results of your
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
random drug tests of student athletes--the librarian will know exactly
look. If the change isn't headline material, the librarian can still
get you to the right place. If your question requires an understanding
law, the librarian will likely send you to a book that discusses the
What They Learned
- When the vice-principal asked about student drug tests, the
gave her a copy of Vernonia School District v. Acton, a recent U.S.
case. She learned that the Court approved of blanket drug testing
athletes because there was an "immediate crisis" of drug use at the
by the athletes, and that officials feared drug-caused athletic
vice-principal's school does not have widespread drug problems, and
Mathaletes do not compete in physical activity; on the other hand,
are highly respected students, and the principal suspects that
several of them
use drugs. She decided to recommend that only these math scholars
- The police officer was steered to an article that explained how
strikes" law requires persons with two prior serious felony
receive a 25-year to life sentence if convicted of a new felony. The
learned that the suspect's crime of petty theft was chargeable as a
because the suspect had a prior conviction for petty theft, but that
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
in Capitol Square Review Board v. Pinette, an Ohio case involving a
permit request by the Ku Klux Klan. An Ohio law directed that the
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
there, the Court concluded that no one was likely to think the city
Klan's message, and a permit had to be issued. But the parks
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
city-endorsed symbol. She decided to raise the matter with her
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