Retired judge Stan Billingsley pores through news accounts daily to find the law behind the story. He's part of a new and growing medium that hopes to fill a gap in news coverage and encourage discussion of the law: legal blogs.
Last week, after studying case law and interviewing the lawyer for the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, Billingsley concluded on news.lawreader.com that the commission has no legal basis to continue legal proceedings against Dan Druen in light of Gov. Ernie Fletcher's pardon of him in the merit hiring investigation.
He's previously defended Chief Justice Joseph Lambert for writing a controversial footnote to a Supreme Court opinion and blasted a Western Kentucky judge for jailing illegal immigrants.
"We look at the law behind the issues," Billingsley said. "We are certainly not partisan in respect to political philosophy, but we do have the driving concept of, 'If you're going to state the law, state it correctly.'"
At least six Kentucky law blogs, or blawgs, have emerged in the last two years, regularly posting digests of court decisions, analyses of statutes and dissections of legal theories. Others are popping up around the country and internationally.
They provide online the kind of in-depth, regular legal analysis usually available only in limited-access media.
Blawggers say they also are motivated by loftier ambitions of improving their profession. Three Kentucky blawggers who were recently interviewed say that what they do is an extension of what civic-minded lawyers have always done: encourage a scholarly discussion of the law.
But now that debate occurs daily rather than in periodicals and journals.
Blawggers have attempted to distinguish themselves from their partisan political counterparts. Louisville personal-injury lawyer Michael Stevens, who publishes kentuckylawblog.com, recently wrote that he doesn't want to be called a blogger anymore because of the baggage associated with it.
Blogs, short for Web logs, are online diaries or journals that allow readers to respond to and comment on the writer's posts.
Blawgs mostly are geared toward lawyers and not a general audience -- unless, say, you have a strange fascination with the intricacies of divorce law. For that, go to Divorce Law Journal at http:// louisvilledivorce.typepad.com.
Billingsley started his free blog to drive traffic to his commercial Web site, lawreader.com, an online law library. It has a search engine for Kentucky's laws and rules of evidence, synopses of appeals court cases and examples of jury instructions, pleadings and other documents commonly filed by attorneys.
"We get the same comment time after time: 'Now I can compete with the big firms,'" Billingsley said. "A single practitioner cannot afford to maintain a big law library."
The Web site saves lawyers time, not to mention inconvenient trips to Frankfort, he said.
The local blawgs are generally light on political commentary, though they do analyze and digest court decisions. They've also defended judges who they say have been criticized unfairly.
"We are doing this for the love of the profession," said Diana Skaggs, who publishes Divorce Law Journal. "We are all aware of the undermining of the public confidence in the judiciary. We see the need for public confidence in our judiciary, and we have an excellent judiciary."
Billingsley defended Lambert last summer for tucking into an unrelated ruling a footnote that said the governor enjoys absolute immunity and may face prosecution only if impeached first. Billingsley disagreed with the footnote but said it's common for judges to comment on legal matters that are not directly related to the case at hand.
The blawggers frequently analyze the law behind major news stories. Billingsley, for example, posted Kentucky cases involving the Bible in the courtroom after a Mississippi jury consulted a Bible while deliberating whether to give the death penalty to a woman who murdered her husband.
Stevens links to court stories across the state -- appeals, court decisions and other law related news such as forums and local bar events. He says his site fills a void left by state bar publications that publish only monthly or quarterly.
"I enjoy thinking about the law, writing about the law and sharing this information with other lawyers," he said.
Blawgs have generated some controversy among those concerned that they constitute lawyer advertising, which is regulated by state bar associations. Lawyers are required to submit advertisements to the Kentucky Bar Association for review and pay a $50 fee, leading to initial fears that blawggers would have to pay $50 per post.
The bar's advertising commission has ruled that is not necessary, but it does require lawyer bloggers to register their "about" pages, which typically contain biographies and links to law firm Web sites.
Robert L. Elliott, a Lexington lawyer who is on the advertising commission, said law blogs "are kind of a new game in town." He said the bar has not yet developed hard rules for how to handle them.
Law blogs are not necessarily lawyer advertising, depending on their content, he said. But Elliott said some blawgs do appear to be nothing more than advertisements, though he declined to point to specific sites.
Lexington lawyer Benjamin Cowgill, who publishes Legal Ethics Newsletter at legalethics.info, said law blogs have no more ethical issues than lawyer Web sites. Cowgill's site triggered the bar association's review of its advertising regulations.
Cowgill says if Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he'd be a blawgger.
"He would be thrilled to live at a time when it is possible to share information with interested people throughout the world, simply by sitting down at his desk and writing at a keyboard," Cowgill wrote in an e-mail.