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Keeping records

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This digital age makes it possible to preserve much more than people ever could preserve before, including some of our basic public records.

Just because we can does not of course mean we will. Ask the people at the state historical society about trying to preserve, record and make available the masses of records about Idaho’s history. In the context of overall state budgets, the amount spent on that effort is a drop in an ocean, and not nearly enough to do the job comprehensively. But you never know when those efforts can turn out to be critical. Or at least useful.

Here and there, individual efforts are made, and one announced last week by Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is worth some attention – and credit.

Ever since statehood, the obligations of the attorney general have included publishing each year the office’s collected opinions, case activity and related documents. These reports get almost no news attention (they’re a formal compendium of things that have already happened, after all) and probably few people outside the legal system, and only some within it, are even aware of them. But they can be a vital resource for tracing the state’s legal history, and its history overall.

Finding recent copies has usually been easy enough, and sometimes they’ve even been elegantly bound. Law libraries often have copies. But even the state law library doesn’t have all of them. In fact, no one does.

Wasden’s office said their own internal collection starts with the 1891-92 report – the first – and runs to this year. But, “The missing volumes are scattered across the decades and include: the biennial report for 1895-96; the annual report for 1953; the period covering January through June 1954; the period for July through December 1973; and the 1974 report.”

Wasden said, “We searched my office, the historical society, the state law library and even former Attorneys General for these missing publications. It’s unfortunate the set is incomplete, but I’m hoping with public help we can recover these missing volumes.”

Those they do have have been posted online, at http://www.ag.idaho.gov/publications/op-guide-cert/annualReports/historicAnnualReportIndex.html. They’re scanned in as images, so they aren’t always easy to search by text.

Some of them actually make for lively reading, maybe the first one especially.

AG George Roberts wrote an overview that seemed to betray some exasperation with the job. At that time the state had local district attorneys, and Roberts seems to have been disgusted with many of them. “I requested one of the District Attorneys in this State to attend the preliminary examination of a person charged with a peculiarly aggravated and brutal assault upon a woman with a deadly weapon,” he wrote. “He replied by challenging me to show him the section of the law which made it his duty to do so. I admitted that the law did not compel him to, but that a sense of public duty should impel him to do so . . .” The resulting trial, he said, was “a travesty.”

Roberts indicated he was hammered for those local foulups: “This office has been perpetually harassed by questions affecting the performance of public duty, not only by Boards of County Commissioners, but by Precinct and County officers, and School District officers as well.”

A candid review. Maybe attorneys general of today could follow in those candid footsteps. You wonder what they might say.

The release of these past records might even give them some encouragement.

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