A Canadian litigation lawyer by profession, I came to DU to do a Master's degree in American and Comparative law and expand my understanding of fire-related legal issues. Having done extensive writing in a legal practice that spanned some 20 years, I was cocky about my research abilities. Little did I know what lay ahead.
In my first class, Professor Valeria Elliott assigned a paper on any issue relating to the Bill of Rights. Great! It sounded so simple when Professor Elliott explained it. A little research was necessary, yes, but how much could a 30-page paper require? Surely not a lot. I picked a topic relating to fire law: warrantless searches and seizures at fire scenes. In other words, when does one have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a blackened pile of burned rubble that was once a home or office?
To start this project I wanted to provide a brief overview of the search and seizure (S&S) field then focus in on my topic. Confident in my computer research skills, I started with a keyword search of a national legal database. Thankfully, the search function is self-limiting. When tens of thousands of law review articles and cases turned up in response to my search, I soon narrowed the parameters.
One good way to get a handle on an area of law is to have a look at what the highest courts have written on the subject. As I soon learned, the supreme courts of the various states and the United States Supreme Court have written hundreds of decisions about S&S. After downloading some articles and cases that looked helpful, it soon became apparent that these downloaded materials numbered in the thousands of pages. The computer can be deceptive this way. Clearly my approach was not working. Hours were melting away. The sun went behind a dark cloud, or maybe it was nighttime - it was hard to tell. Everything started to blur.
I changed strategies. I figured that a look at the library catalog should point me to a hornbook or textbook that summarized the field nicely. I was not looking for a cosmic understanding of S&S law, just a basic summary. At first, I cringed when a subject-matter query of the catalog on the S&S topic listed so many results. I noticed these wily S&S creatures seemed to congregate in the KF9630 section on the second floor of the Westminster Law Library. I headed up there to browse and was greeted (daunted, really) by shelf after shelf of books on S&S. They were old, they were new, they were tall, they were short, red books, blue books, big print, and little print - yet none seemed to yield the key to the law in this field. One thing soon became apparent: the newer the book, the thicker it was. The law was clearly growing over time.
Finally, I focused my search on two treatises. This might conjure up for the reader an image of a one- or two-volume dissertation on an area of law, but not so for S&S law. Each of these treatises was ten or twelve huge volumes. Pocket parts updated one and the other was a binder service. I was horrified to see that they were updated several times a year and, even then, the volume of law overwhelmed the space allotted for the material. Both were in their second edition (meaning the multi-volume sets had been consolidated and re-written, filling even more space). The volumes were bursting with what appears to be a never-ending flow of S&S cases.
I read sections of the books in search of some sensible summary of the law in this field. Too tired to carry the books to a table, I sank down in the aisle between library bookcases, shelves of S&S books looming over me, reading on my lap, searching, ever searching. I recall an expert once commenting that gas expands to fill whatever space is available. Apparently, so too does the law of S&S. Also, like gas, anything I ever knew or thought I knew about S&S law was dissipating into the air. As the hours passed, bald spots started appearing on my head from where I had unconsciously been pulling my hair out. Drifting, I found my mind wandering back, back to the previous summer of sunshine, heat, and lazy days by the pool at our Denver home. One hot day I was passing the time, amusing myself poolside, pouring dribbles of cold white wine from my glass into an ant's nest built under a crack in the cement near my chair. The tiny insects swarmed out of their nest in their millions, clearly distraught and somewhat intoxicated by my periodic onslaught. After a time, my husband finally chided me to leave the poor ants alone. Now, months later, here in the law library I remembered, as the words blurred on the page looking just like those ants swarming on the white cement. Was this some karmatic retribution against me for tormenting the little creatures?
I can't be sure, because the sun no longer rose over the DU College of Law, but I think at least three days and nights passed. Finally, I realized I needed help. Early in our program, we had been introduced to reference librarians who were clearly eager to assist in any way possible. Struggling under the weight of my research notes and my portable computer, heavy with downloaded S&S cases and articles, I made my way to the reference desk. (I know megabytes of electronic data to a computer are not supposed to be like mega bites of hamburger to a person and should not add any weight, but S&S law defies the rules that govern the physical world.)
There at the reference desk sat Martha Keister, smiling the rare smile of someone who has never met a research problem she could not solve. In less than 30 minutes she pointed me to resources of which only a master librarian could know. After three days of darkness, the sun finally rose that day.
A week later, having fluffed my hair to cover the bald spots, I gave a PowerPoint presentation to our class about my research methodology. I explained my computer research calmly, touched on the use of the library catalog, described the books I consulted, and finally shared how helpful Martha had been - all accentuated by photos signifying the steps along the way. Professor Elliott thanked me for my professionalism and the class seemed enlightened. What I did not share with them that day is that I had seen the abyss, but survived.
The moral of this story: I was not so smart, Martha was, and even more importantly, my time at the DU College of Law has been invaluable.
I will be forever grateful to Professor Paula Rhodes, Director of the MACLAW program and Jay (J. Robert, Jr.) Brown, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, who together found a way to let me specialize in fire law, largely through thesis work, as I had hoped to do. Also to Valeria Elliott, a wonderful teacher, and to Martha Keister, who taught me that learning how better to research the law is a life-long journey.
- T.D. Hewitt, LLM. American and Comparative Law Program (MACLAW) 2003