-Web Watch: Preserving Legal History
Robert J. Ambrogi
Law Technology News

For legal historians, the Web is a place where they can preserve in digital format the faded and crumbling documents of the past, for playback now and in the future. These chroniclers of the law are building invaluable archives online. From ancient Greece to the Magna Carta, from the common law to contemporary jurisprudence, Web sites document and explore the rule and role of law. This column looks at sites that explore the history of law from its earliest recorded beginnings, and then moves on to sites that focus on the legal history of the U.S. 


Among the most wide ranging and ambitious of these is Yale Law School's Avalon Project,, publishing historical documents online from the fields of law, economics, politics, diplomacy and government. Materials span ancient Greece to contemporary times, and include such pre-18th Century documents as the Athenian Constitution by Aristotle, the Code of Hammurabi and the Magna Carta. 

Documents are organized by century, as well as by author, subject and title. Documents are also grouped into major thematic collections, such as "American Diplomacy: Multilateral Treaties 1864-1999," and "Nuremberg War Crimes Trial." The directors of the site say they intend not merely to post these documents but also to add value by linking to supporting documents referred to in the body of the text. 

Thirteenth century English judge Henry of Bracton is credited with compiling De Legibus Et Consuetudinibus Angliae, an attempt to describe rationally the whole of English law -- 500 years before Blackstone ever sat down to write his commentaries on English law. Though Bracton's authorship is subject to question, the work remains invaluable. 

The Ames Foundation, the Harvard Law School library, and Cornell University's Legal Information Institute publish this treatise on the Web, in both its original Latin and in English translation. Bracton Online,, can be browsed or searched in either language, and an optional framed version shows both the Latin and English texts simultaneously. 

The Harvard Law School Library also hosts the Nuremberg Trials Project: A Digital Document Collection,, a Web site devoted to analysis and digitization of documents relating to the Nuremberg Trials. The project is aimed at preserving and expanding access to the library's million pages of documents relating to the trials of Nazi Germany's military and political leaders. The documents -- which include trial transcripts, briefs, document books, evidence files and other papers -- became too fragile to be handled, so the library began to digitize them and make them available in stages via the Web. 

The first stage provides 6,755 pages of documents relating to the so-called Medical Case, the first of the trials conducted by the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, as well as analysis of documents relating to subsequent cases. The Medical Case, tried in 1946 and 1947, involved 23 defendants accused of organizing and participating in war crimes and crimes against humanity in the form of harmful or fatal medical experiments and other medical procedures. 


Beginning with the Continental Congress in 1774 and continuing through the forty-second Congress in 1873 -- the year the Government Printing Office began publishing the Congressional Record -- America's legislative bodies kept records of their proceedings. Together, they form a rich documentary history of the construction of the nation and the development of the federal government. Thanks to the Library of Congress, these records are available online in a linked set titled "A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates 1774-1873,"

The collection offers the records of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention and ratification debates, and the first 42 federal congresses. It includes the Journals of the Continental Congress (1774-1789), the Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, and the Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (1787-1788); the Journals of the House of Representatives (1789-1873) and the Senate (1789-1873), including the Senate Executive Journal (1789-1873); the Journal of William Maclay (1789-1791), senator from Pennsylvania in the first Congress; the debates of Congress as published in the Annals of Congress (1789-1821), the Register of Debates (1824-1837), and The Congressional Globe (1833-1873); and the Statutes at Large (1789-1873). The collection continues to grow, and now includes the complete U.S. Serial Set. 

Part of the larger Federal Judicial Center's Web site, History of the Federal Judiciary,, is a basic reference source for information about the history of the federal courts and the judges who have served on the federal courts since 1789. Of most practical use to lawyers is the Federal Judges Biographical Database, containing entries for more than 2,800 individuals who have served as federal district, circuit, and court of appeals judges, as well as Supreme Court justices. 

Other parts of this site are: 

  Courts of the Federal Judiciary, with a legislative history of every district, circuit and court of appeals as well as a chronological list of judges who served on the court. 

  Landmark Judicial Legislation, containing the text of 21 statutes related to the organization and jurisdiction of the federal judiciary. 

  Topics in Federal Judicial History, presenting various reference materials. 

  Courthouse Photograph Exhibit, displaying photographs of 35 courthouses constructed between 1852 and 1939. 

Published in 1904 by the U.S. Government Printing Office, Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties,, edited by Charles J. Kappler, was a seven-volume compilation of U.S. treaties, laws and executive orders pertaining to Native American tribes. The volumes cover U.S. government treaties with Native Americans from 1778 to 1883 (volume II) and U.S. laws and executive orders concerning Native Americans from 1871 to 1970 (volumes I, III-VII). 

In May 1996, the Oklahoma State University Library began a project to convert 150 pages of text from volume II to a digital format, maintaining the appearance of the original work as much as possible while allowing for full-text indexing. These pages included all of the pre-removal treaties of the five tribes most significant to Oklahoma: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. In 1999, with new funding provided by the Coca-Cola Foundation, the library took up where it left off, converting the remaining text from volumes I, II and III. 

Religious freedom as it has played out in courts and legislatures is the focus of The Religious Liberty Archive,, a unique Web site from Denver law firm Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons. The site is a virtual library of religious freedom law, housing the full texts of pertinent Supreme Court cases since 1815, commentary on the cases, federal and state laws, treatises and historical materials. 

Robert J. Ambrogi, a lawyer in Rockport, Mass., is vice president of editorial services for Jaffe Associates ( He is author of "The Essential Guide to the Best (and Worst) Legal Sites on the Web," available at and he can be reached via e-mail at: