Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ferris Bueller's Day in Court

Over the weekend, the John Hughes class-cutting classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off turned 25. An intern at the blog Jezebel marked the anniversary of the film’s release like a typical first-year law student whose thought process has been overtaken by legalese: by compiling a video identifying the various laws broken by Ferris throughout the course of the film.

The compilation was partly inspired by a running list from 2009 at the Metafilter discussion board, which came complete with citations to the Illinois Compiled Statutes. But to play the advanced version of this home game, you’d need to determine what the laws in question actually said back in 1986. In particular, relevant statutes about computer tampering (shown in the video as Ferris revises his school attendance record before the principal’s incredulous eyes) likely changed a great deal between the film’s release and today.

How could you accomplish this impossible-sounding task, for this or any other research which requires knowing what a code section said at a particular date in time? You might be tempted to start with the current code, find a relevant section, and then use the history notes to work backwards by reviewing the chronological session laws and piecing together the changes over time. But unless you love jigsaw puzzles, this approach can be tedious and time-consuming, especially if you are dealing with a code section which has been repeatedly amended with minor changes by a long list of session laws.

So, is there a better way? Of course there is. Superseded codes to the rescue! Superseded codes provide a historical snapshot of what the laws in force said on a particular date. Many libraries, including the Goodson Law Library, preserve outdated versions of state and federal codes for their research value. In the Goodson Law Library, print versions of superseded codes can be found on Level 1 (map), organized alphabetically by state. (That floor also boasts a spare set of superseded state codes on microfiche.)

You can also find some superseded state codes on LexisNexis and Westlaw, although the available years will vary by jurisdiction. On Lexis, each state’s listing includes a “Legislative Archive;” for Illinois, the path “Legal > States Legal - U.S. > Illinois > Find Statutes, Regulations, Administrative Materials & Court Rules > By Statutes & Regulations > Legislative Archive” offers a list of databases for IL state codes, but only back to 1992. On Westlaw, browse the Directory for a particular state’s folder and look for a “Historical Statutes” option under Statutes & Legislation: in this case, “U.S. State Materials > Other U.S. States > Illinois > Statutes & Legislative Materials > Illinois Historical Statutes Annotated” dates back a little earlier (to 1988), but still not back to Ferris’s day. (You should also be aware that the superseded versions of codes on these services require you to search for your sections – there is no table of contents browse feature here.)

If your desired year isn’t available on Westlaw or Lexis, you might need to consult a print volume in the library. But don’t you want to confirm that we have the right years before you trek down to Level 1 and crank those compact shelves? Searching the online catalog for these superseded codes can be a bit tricky, as there’s a separate record for every time the titles changed even slightly. Table 1 of the Bluebook can assist with the former titles of codes for each U.S. state.

If you’re still interested in Ferris Bueller’s potential liability, you might peruse the Smith-Hurd Illinois Annotated Statutes from the 1980s, which are indeed available on Level 1. If you’re interested in researching other superseded code sections, feel free to Ask a Librarian for help.