A rich source of information about laws is found in the history data that accompanies each law in most states, but you’ve probably never noticed it.

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For example, Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act has a series of exemptions spelled out in § 2.2-3705.1 which has a cryptic series of numbers listed below the law, in the section titled “History”:

1999, cc. 485, 518, 703, 726, 793, 849, 852, 867, 868, 881, § 2.1-342.01; 2000, cc. 66, 237, 382, 400, 430, 583, 589, 592, 594, 618, 632, 657, 720, 932, 933, 947, 1006, 1064; 2001, cc. 288, 518, 844, § 2.2-3705; 2002, cc. 87, 155, 242, 393, 478, 481, 499, 522, 571, 572, 633, 655, 715, 798, 830; 2003, cc. 274, 307, 327, 332, 358, 704, 801, 884, 891, 893, 897, 968; 2004, c. 690; 2010, c. 553.

Most people’s eyes gloss right over that. (Really, did you read any of that, or just glance at it and acknowledge, “Yup, that’s a bunch of stuff that means nothing to me … I’ll just skip that and see what he’s got say about it?”) What looks like nonsense to most people turns out to be really rich data, which is simply stored in such a way to render it basically meaningless. Let’s peer inside and see what this means, starting with Virginia.

With Virginia’s history, the first pattern to emerge is that what looks like a long string of numbers is actually broken up into stanzas by semicolons. Here’s the first stanza:

1999, cc. 485, 518, 703, 726, 793, 849, 852, 867, 868, 881, § 2.1-342.01

The first four numbers — 1999 — are the year in which this section of the code passed into law, at least in its present form. (That was accomplished with then-delegate Chip Woodrum’s HB1985, which overhauled Virginia’s FOIA laws.) And the last string of numbers — § 2.1-342.01 — is the section number that this section had at the time. (Title 2.1 was recodified as Title 2.2 in 2000, which is when this was given its present section number.) In the middle, that series of three-digit numbers (485, 518, 703, etc.) refer to the portion of the Acts of the General Assembly for that year that created or amended this section of the code. The Acts of the General Assembly are sort of like a changelog for the code (but not exactly like a changelog!), in which all of the legislation that passed the General Assembly that year is ordered by the section of the state code that it affects; when multiple bills affect the same portion of the code, they are combined. It’s the intermediate step between a bill and the final, amended code. So here we can see that there were 10 portions of the 1999 Acts of the General Assembly that affected this section of the code.

With this as a key, one can step through each stanza in the history of this Virginia law and understand how and when it changed, if not what the substance of those changes was.

Presumably it’s written in this manner to save space in the printed volumes, but obviously it no longer makes sense to codify our laws in a manner optimized for printed volumes. We can do better.

A PARSER FOR THE STATE DECODED

I’m developing a parser for the State Decoded for these history sections, so that rather than displaying this cryptic content, instead the material will be provided in plain English. By storing this data atomically, it’ll be possible to generate a listing of all laws that were amended in a given year, all laws amended by a given portion of the Acts of the General Assembly, or find laws similar to a given law based on their shared history of being amended within the same portion of the Acts. I’m optimistic that it’ll be possible to connect many state codes’ history records back to individual pieces of legislation, rather than just the legislature’s changelog, which opens up a potential wealth of information. (This can already be seen on Virginia Decoded for all changes from 2006 onward, such as in the “Amendment Attempts” listing on § 2.2-3705.1.)

Incidentally, Florida has the same sort of exemptions to its open records law, in s. 119.071, and its history section looks like this:

s. 4, ch. 75-225; ss. 2, 3, 4, 6, ch. 79-187; s. 1, ch. 82-95; s. 1, ch. 83-286; s. 5, ch. 84-298; s. 1, ch. 85-18; s. 1, ch. 85-45; s. 1, ch. 85-86; s. 4, ch. 85-301; s. 2, ch. 86-11; s. 1, ch. 86-21; s. 1, ch. 86-109; s. 2, ch. 88-188; s. 1, ch. 88-384; s. 1, ch. 89-80; s. 63, ch. 90-136; s. 4, ch. 90-211; s. 78, ch. 91-45; s. 1, ch. 91-96; s. 1, ch. 91-149; s. 90, ch. 92-152; s. 1, ch. 93-87; s. 2, ch. 93-232; s. 3, ch. 93-404; s. 4, ch. 93-405; s. 1, ch. 94-128; s. 3, ch. 94-130; s. 1, ch. 94-176; s. 1419, ch. 95-147; ss. 1, 3, ch. 95-170; s. 4, ch. 95-207; s. 1, ch. 95-320; ss. 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20, 25, 29, 31, 32, 33, 34, ch. 95-398; s. 3, ch. 96-178; s. 41, ch. 96-406; s. 18, ch. 96-410; s. 1, ch. 98-9; s. 7, ch. 98-137; s. 1, ch. 98-259; s. 2, ch. 99-201; s. 27, ch. 2000-164; s. 1, ch. 2001-249; s. 29, ch. 2001-261; s. 1, ch. 2001-361; s. 1, ch. 2001-364; s. 1, ch. 2002-67; s. 1, ch. 2002-256; s. 1, ch. 2002-257; ss. 2, 3, ch. 2002-391; s. 11, ch. 2003-1; s. 1, ch. 2003-16; s. 1, ch. 2003-100; s. 1, ch. 2003-137; ss. 1, 2, ch. 2003-157; ss. 1, 2, ch. 2004-9; ss. 1, 2, ch. 2004-32; ss. 1, 3, ch. 2004-95; s. 7, ch. 2004-335; s. 4, ch. 2005-213; s. 41, ch. 2005-236; ss. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, ch. 2005-251; s. 14, ch. 2006-1; s. 1, ch. 2006-158; s. 1, ch. 2006-180; s. 1, ch. 2006-181; s. 1, ch. 2006-211; s. 1, ch. 2006-212; s. 13, ch. 2006-224; s. 1, ch. 2006-284; s. 1, ch. 2006-285; s. 1, ch. 2007-93; s. 1, ch. 2007-95; s. 1, ch. 2007-250; s. 1, ch. 2007-251; s. 1, ch. 2008-41; s. 2, ch. 2008-57; s. 1, ch. 2008-145; ss. 1, 3, ch. 2008-234; s. 1, ch. 2009-104; ss. 1, 2, ch. 2009-150; s. 1, ch. 2009-169; ss. 1, 2, ch. 2009-235; s. 1, ch. 2009-237; s. 1, ch. 2010-71; s. 1, ch. 2010-171; s. 1, ch. 2011-83; s. 1, ch. 2011-85; s. 1, ch. 2011-140; s. 48, ch. 2011-142; s. 1, ch. 2011-201; s. 1, ch. 2011-202.

Wow. I’m not yet entirely clear on what all of that means, but I’m getting there.

Image courtesy of Flickr user jimmywayne.

A version of this post also appeared on the State Decoded blog.