By Tim Eberly
Score another point for the Internet.
Since 1998, District Judge John Warner has weaned himself and the rest of the legal community in Hill County from the time-honored use of a law library to an international online research tool.
For about $170 a month, the 27-year-old online company, Westlaw, allows users the ability to retrieve information from nearly 15,000 databases and 1 billion public records within seconds, making Hill County's collection of books obsolete.
"The computer age is upon us," Warner said Monday. "It's a complete law library. It has every federal and state case in the United States" and some international cases.
Not only a timesaver, Westlaw is more space-efficient than the county's library of law books, which for the time being is located adjacent to Warner's office on the third floor of the Hill County Courthouse. In Hill County's pre-Westlaw era, between 5,000 and 7,000 law books filled the law library.
"As time goes on, we'll get rid of all of them," Warner said.
The switch to the Internet, Warner said, has proven cost-effective. Updating the law library cost approximately $20,000 a year, while the Westlaw service puts a dent of less than $2,000 in the court system budget. The service, he said, provides "quadruple the resource for one-tenth of the cost."
"It was offered at a cost that we could afford," Warner said, "and the cost of the paper books was escalating so fast, there was very little choice."
About 2,500 books remain in the library, but not without a lack of effort to dispense them. Warner said he first attempted to sell the books to Montana State University-Northern and the state law library in Helena. He also advertised them for sale in legal journals.
The response? Warner recalled selling one set of books for a couple hundred dollars, but on the whole, "nobody wanted them," Warner said.
Then he tried to give them away to high schools and middle schools along the Hi-Line, and to the Havre-Hill County Library. Again, there were no takers.
In late 1999, Warner started throwing the books away. "They're worthless," he said. "They cost a lot to buy but they've been replaced by the computer."
The only books that will be spared are a complete set of Montana law books, a set of U.S. Statute books and a legal encyclopedia. The rest will likely be thrown in the garbage.
"We're saving money and the information they receive is up-to-date and current," Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway said.
Some members of the community, however, are upset at what they perceive as a shorage of effort by the county to find the books a home.
"Those belong to the people," Chuck Grant, a Havre resident, said this week. "It's part of the history of Havre. If I had known what was happening, I would have taken every one of them." Grant said he went to the courthouse Tuesday and told Warner he would take all the unwanted books.
Said 60-year-old Sam Bitz: "We got a crazy situation going on here. Who in the hell has come up with an idea to destroy those law libraries? Some of those predate the (courthouse) itself."
The departure of some of the books has opened up enough space for Stacy Ellery, the Hill County court reporter, to carve out some office space. When the rest are disposed of, Warner said, he wants to construct a wall in the library to divide the open area and create more room for offices perhaps for a community service worker and a receptionist.
Starting in the early 1970s, the law library was open to the public. Other than himself and local attorneys, very few people have made use of the library during Warner's tenure of 14 years, he said.
A computer has been set up in the library to give the public access to the database, but navigating Westlaw can be tricky, he said.
"It requires significant training. You don't just walk in there and do it," Warner said. "I'm still learning. And I've been at it for a couple years."
But Warner said it probably isn't any more challenging than wading through the law library.
"I had to go to school for three years to learn how to do that," he said.