State laws are written for and by attorneys. While that might make for a good legal system, it sure makes them hard for regular people to understand. There’s code law — what law books are full of — and then there’s case law, which is how the laws are actually interpreted by courts.

Every time each state’s legislature meets, they propose thousands of bills that would amend those laws. Attorney generals routinely write opinions about how laws should be interpreted. Law journals publish long articles exploring what laws mean. All of these sources and others still are more than many attorneys can keep up with, even with their paid access to expensive legal informatics systems. How is an average citizen supposed to figure out how to interpret the law?

It was this very problem that got me to start working on a solution for Virginia’s laws. Over the course of a year, I’ve spent nights and weekends working on a website that would pull together all of these strands in a way that non-attorneys can understand, presenting all relevant data about each section of the law on a single page. Although I have a long-standing personal interest in the law, I am not an attorney. Luckily, I am a programmer.

When that website was mostly finished, I’d come to realize that it could be useful to folks in other states. My application to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s News Challenge proposed doing just that — turning my code into a standard software package, identifying groups in states throughout the country that could implement it, and then working with them to get it set up. I was lucky enough to be selected to receive a 2011 News Challenge grant, which will allow me to spend a year and a half as a sort of a Johnny Appleseed of open government, spreading accessible state laws throughout the United States. I call that project “The State Decoded.”

So what, specifically, does The State Decoded do that’s so great? Here are a few features of note:

i-e4dfeaeda5f84f06985863b6102ae0e3-definition.png Embedded definitions: Essential to understanding the law is understanding the definitions of words. It’s one thing to know that it’s illegal to “play amplified music downtown after 11 p.m. on weeknights,” and it’s another to know that “amplified music” is defined as “sound that is made louder through means of electrical enhancement,” that “downtown” is defined as “the area bounded by Main Street, 3rd Street, 8th Street, and Water Street,” and that “weeknights” are “Sunday through Thursday.” The State Decoded automatically locates those definitions within the code and displays them when each defined term is hovered over with the mouse.

Tagging: Laws frequently do not use the words that most people would expect. Somebody looking for laws on “theft” might come up short if they didn’t know that “larceny” was the term they needed. By allowing people to tag the law prohibiting larceny with the word “theft,” future visitors will find that law when they search for the more obvious term.

Automatic cross-references: Sometimes related laws are separated by hundreds or thousands of others, and it can be difficult to connect those dots. By analyzing which laws refer to others, share a lot of the same tags, tend to be amended by the same bills, and are inclined to be looked at by the same people, somebody looking at one law receives recommendations of others that are related to the current one.

A rich application programming interface: All the data stored within the site is available programmatically, so that website developers can use any of that information for their own purposes on their own websites.

Most of these features are already in place on the Virginia site, which is currently in private alpha testing. There’s been a surprisingly enthusiastic response from groups across the country so far, and these days my nights and weekends are spent not on programming, but on helping folks in other states figure out how to prepare to implement The State Decoded for their laws. Once the Knight Foundation grant kicks in, development will go full-time, and my updates here on Idea Lab will be full of descriptions of fun, new features and interesting discoveries about the quirks of state laws. I look forward to your questions and comments about this project.