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Imagine you’re opening a new business that uses water in the production cycle. If you want to know what federal regulations apply to you, you might do a Google search that leads to the Code of Federal Regulations. But that’s where it gets complicated, because the law contains hundreds of regulations involving water that are difficult to narrow down. (The CFR alone contains 13898 references to water.) For example, water may be defined one way when referring to a drinkable liquid and another when defined as an emission from a manufacturing facility. If the regulation says your water must maintain a certain level of purity, to which water are they referring? Definitions are the building blocks of the law, and yet pouring through them to find what applies to you is frustrating to an average business owner. Computer automation might help, but how can a computer understand exactly what kind of water you’re looking for? We at the Legal Information Institute think this is pretty important challenge, and apparently Google does too.

BOOM WinnersIn March, a team of three Masters of Engineering Students led by LII semantic web researcher and developer Mohammad AL Asswad took home honors at BOOM (Bits on Our Minds), the Cornell Department of Computing and Information Science’s annual student technology showcase. Faced with stiff competition from underwater robots and other student innovations, students Deepthi Rajagopalan, Neha Kulkarni, and Siyu Zhan worked with Mohammad on a project designed to help LII users find definitions within the US Code of Federal Regulations. This year’s “Googliest Project Award” included a glass trophy and a $250 cash prize made possible by, you guessed it, Google. The LII team was one of only six award winners selected from over 40 competing projects.

Working collaboratively with Cornell Law School students Alice Chavaillard and Rodica Turtoi, the team developed software that uses natural language processing and machine learning techniques to identify sections of federal law that define important terms. In this collaborative project, the Cornell Law students served as domain area experts and helped to produce the data needed to train the computers to classify a paragraph of text as a definition or non-definition. The engineering team then wrote software that determines the scope of the definition (where the definition applies), parses out the defined terms, and finds the boundaries of definitions that are long and complex. Once defined, the definition may be linked to other parts of relevant regulations. So when you find the term water in your particular regulation, you can click the term to be taken to the specific definition of water that applies to you, whether the definition resides in that regulation or in another section of the law.

posterWhile still in the early stages, this type of semantic infrastructure is the next phase of Internet development, in which human understanding can be assisted by a computer’s ability to understand the context in which certain words or phrases are used. You can see the details of the team’s research in this poster, which was part of their prize winning presentation. Expect more on this project in the months ahead.

How does one get to the LII? Well, it ain’t exactly Carnegie Hall, so “practice, practice, practice” won’t quite cut it. Instead, our staff take diverse paths to their positions at the LII, and that’s what makes us work so well together. In a small operation like ours, it’s not so much what you know, as how much you are willing to learn.

One question many of us get asked often is, “What exactly is it that you do at the LII?” Last week, LII interface developer Wayne Weibel took some time to answer from his office, high atop the Peace Tower at Cornell Law School.

Q: When did you first become interested in computers?

A: I got the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1988, when I was eight years-old.  The ability to control an avatar (though I didn’t know that word back then) by pressing buttons was fascinating. Then we got a home PC when I was 12, and I started messing around with this fledgling technology called the Internet. I wrote some silly scripts (even some “programs” in my TI-83), and I built web pages for games and friends. I finally started learning “real” programming as a senior in high school.

onthebeachQ: Where did you go to college and what did you study there? Degrees?

A: I got my BS in Computer Science and an MA in Human Computer Interaction, both at SUNY Oswego. I focused on artificial intelligence and natural language processing as an undergrad. I almost had a mathematics minor, and I took a smattering of psychology, philosophy, writing, and art.  I was part of the Honors Program, too.

Q: What are some of the strangest jobs you’ve had… before coming to the LII?

A: I worked at the Sterling Renaissance Festival as a food booth supervisor, mostly at the cone ka-bob and waffle cone booths. Honestly, all the jobs I’ve had have been pretty typical–supermarket, video store, sports retail–then routine office jobs after I graduated.

Q: What is the most interesting aspect of your work at the LII?

A: Parsing and combining data from disparate sources to form a (hopefully) coherent, accessible, and usable representation of the law. And working in Drupal, our content management system. And I enjoy my co-workers.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in working at the LII?

A: Same answer as the above! Plus walking the Ithaca hills and, recently, the sub-zero temperatures.

Q: What parts or features of the LII site best demonstrate your work? C’mon, speak geek to us…

A: The CFR pages are complex and interesting. The main content is pulled from our XML database, and the other tabs on the page are generated from queries to a MySQL database. The PTOA (Parallel Table of Authorities) displays the relationships extracted from text we receive from the GPO (Government Printing Office).

Another example is the TOPN (Table of Popular Names), which parses and combines the OLRC (Office of the Law Revision Counsel) popular names table and Table III information to show the regulations associated with a named act. I created the ingestion processes for these features, which I also (try to) maintain.  And, I am sad to say, I also created the fundraiser splashover. But we need donations to help keep us going, and it has been very successful for us.

Q: You recently helped develop an app for Google Glass. Can you describe what it does and how the building process went?

A: “Signtater” is software that allows a user to send a picture to an online service that extracts text in the picture and identifies any legal citations, returning the web address (if any) for the citations, which can then also be browsed in Google Glass.

So when it’s perfected, you upload this photo:

BearSign

And then… <geekspeak>After straightening out some systems snafus, I began by using the starter glassware program.  With a lack of API documentation for the Google MirrorClient it was a process of looking at the existing code and the raw class files combined with the general RESTful interface documentation available from Google.  Looking back, the biggest hurdle was actually getting the project setup in Google.</geekspeak>

You get this back:

cfrSnip

Q: What upcoming projects/features are you most excited about?

A: I want to make improvements to the Signtater glassware and build some associated mobile apps for iOS and Android based on that same technology. I’m also excited about Semantic Web improvements to the CFR and other areas of the site.

When did you first become interested the law?

I was totally uninterested in law as a possible vocation until I took the LSAT on a dare.  My first exposure to any aspect of law was my first job out of high school – typing autopsies for the coroner’s bureau.

Where did you go to college and what did you study there? Degrees? 

KnudsenI graduated from the University of California Los Angeles with a BA in History, with quarters at Riverside and Berkeley.  I wanted to study urban planning (living in southern California was a perfect illustration of the need for urban planning), and, until I took the LSAT, I never thought of going to law school.  A friend’s dare (and offer to pay for the test) is what started my career – I did well enough that I thought, “Why not?”

I was accepted at several schools, but ended up at Santa Clara University because the school offered me a place in the dorms free for a few weeks, found me a part-time job, and I found cheap housing in biking distance.  How cheap? $40/month for a derelict store front in San Jose. Of course, we weren’t supposed to be living there.  We made our own shower, kitchen table, a sleeping loft; it is still a shock to remember being so poor – no car, no furniture, no suitcase – and so oblivious to what being a lawyer means.  I graduated (J.D.) in 1978.

In 2010, I went back to school full time at the University of Nevada Reno, where I did a Masters in Judicial Studies, a joint program with the National Judicial College.  I survived my research and thesis to be awarded the degree in December 2012.

Tell us about your work experience. What led you to where you are now?  

I came to Alaska right out of law school, inspired by my folks’ tales of their time up here (my widowed mom returned to Bethel, Alaska when I was in college).  I still didn’t have a car, so I shipped all my belongings (seven boxes, mostly books) to Anchorage, packed a backpack and sleeping bag, and joined 3 other young people in a tiny Mazda driving to Alaska.  I spent three days in at Denali (Mt. McKinley National Park) on the way. The sun shone, the mountain was fully visible, and I’ve been an Alaskan ever since.  Alaska was still in the Pipeline Boom and it was pretty wild.  Bars opened at 6 am and closed at 5 am.  I printed up a resume and just went knocking on doors.  I got a job as a law clerk in my first week in Anchorage with a great labor law firm. From there I went to the Alaska Department of Labor, the Attorney General’s Office for seventeen years, and ultimately, as an administrative law judge, the chair of the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission.

While I was finishing my Master’s thesis in my basement, I started teaching as an adjunct at University of Alaska Anchorage and I loved it.  When a full-time position came available, I applied and I’ve been teaching full time since August 2012.

In your current position, describe what you do and how you use the LII?  

I teach in the Legal Studies program of the Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage; UAA offers an ABA-accredited BA in Legal Studies, an AAS in Legal Studies, a minor, and 2 post-baccalaureate certificates.  I teach Legal Research, Analysis & Writing and Civil Procedure. I also teach Health Law, alternating with Torts, and do my own research.  Most of my students are upper division undergrads.  Alaska doesn’t have a law school.  So it is important that we have a program to train the mid-level legal workers – the legal technicians, regulation coordinators, legal researchers – who take the places that people with a year of law school would take outside Alaska.  If our students go to law school, they’ll be thoroughly prepared and do well.

I want my students thinking about law as something they participate in – all the time and everywhere – and as something they can understand and argue about intelligently.  The first day in class, I introduce them to WEX because it is accessible 24/7 by their tablet, smart phone, or laptop and it is written for NON-lawyers.  It is a way to make their huge vocabulary learning task possible.  I encourage them to “look it up” even in class.  I also use the LII to introduce them to legal argument and appellate opinions.  For this, LII’s Supreme Court previews are invaluable.  My CivPro class argues a Rule 12 motion before a local judge, on a question pending before the Supreme Court.  They did Walden v. Fiore last semester and the LII preview is where they started.  This semester they are doing Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg.

What parts of the LII do you use the most?  

I use the LII Supreme Court Bulletin – but my students probably use WEX most!

Are there features of the LII site that you find superior to other resources of the same information? 

First, the site content is written to non-lawyers in a lively, engaging, but correct style. It is not overtly politically slanted and it is comprehensive.  With so many legal sites out there with an agenda or selectivity, it is great to be able to present one that is objective and thorough as a source for my students.  I want them to be engaged by law, and that is not done by talking down to them or by obscure blather.  Second, it is free and reliable.  They do not pay a fee nor do they have to sift through ads and politics to reach content.  The site is never down, nor are there dead links (so frustrating!).  So kudos to your techs – keeping the site clean is very helpful.

You recently made a gift to support the LII’s work. Can you tell us why you gave so generously? 

How could I not?  I live in an area without much information infrastructure.  In some ways, we live very intimately with the visible symbols of the law – holding court in village school gyms, for example.  Alaska doesn’t have a law school, a great, historical law library, or all the other established resources that the legal communities outside Alaska have.  A site like Cornell LII gives my students a connection to the workings of the law at the very highest level, as long as they can find an internet connection.  When they understand the arguments being made (we listen to Supreme Court audio streams), they know they and the lawyers here are part of the larger legal community and they can be participants in it – they too can stand up and argue a point of law.  It builds their confidence like nothing else.  More importantly, as I tell them, they have become translators or interpreters of legal events/thinking/speech for their communities and families.  They have a responsibility to share their understanding.  Many of them come from small communities and immigrant families; by acting as “law translators,” they build communal respect for law and the legal process in Alaska.

If you by chance encountered another LII user at a meeting or event, what would you say to convince that user to become a financial supporter?  

Stop thinking about just being a lawyer among lawyers.  Think about all the people in your region.  They can’t all afford your time, even if you had time to give, to show them how to engage in important civic legal debates or what some decision they heard about means.  They’ll get some one or two sentence line from a news assembler or TV program.  As lawyers, we should not be barriers to the public’s understanding of the courts.  Some of them will be voting on these issues and supporting politicians who will be voting on them.  What do you want their information baseline to be? some lobbying group or TV show?  Or do you want them learning that law can be a considered, deliberative process, with nuance and history?  Law – not just codes and statutes, but the ideas of law — shouldn’t be screened or reduced to sound bites for the electorate or sifted into entertainment for the masses.  The law should be transparent and open to view to everyone, rich and poor.  LII makes it so.

“It should be borne in mind that all the time we were studying bats, bats had a unique opportunity to study us.”
– old researcher’s folk saying, quoted by John Brunner in “The Skynappers”.

ComputerThe LII is a place where people — a lot of people — come to find and understand the law.  They come to us looking for information.  But what if we looked for information from them?  It would help us understand what they don’t understand, what we need to organize and present more clearly, and how they make use of what we have.  We already do that through reader surveys, e-mail followups with our donors, and of course an extensive set of web analytics provided by Google and our own monitoring.  But what if we really asked the 170,000 people who visit the site on an average weekday to tell us what they find difficult to understand?

At last September’s Law via the Internet conference, we attended the presentation of a paper by Michael Curtotti and Eric McCreath of the Australian National University.  Later published in the new Journal of Open Access to Law, the paper describes a series of methods for assessing the readability of legislation.  This is actually much harder than it looks — most readability measures are designed specifically to sort reading materials into grade-level bins for use in the teaching of reading, and don’t help much if the problem is figuring out how hard a particular statute or regulation is to understand.  Linguists have, in the past, done fairly deep research on comprehension in criminal-trial settings, particularly jury instructions. But Curtotti and McCreath are the first to do much with legislation, and the first to build an extensive online system for testing particular pieces of text.

We were fascinated.  What if we could use their methods to test readability across the really large audience that is drawn to the LII?   A rough plan was hatched (in the hotel bar, of course).  Over the next few months it was refined, and the Australians began working on software that would integrate the testing with some carefully-chosen parts of the LII site.  We are now finishing up the technical integration of the tests at our end; a particular concern is that we not slow the site down for readers who are not working on the tests.   The actual tests should roll out within a month.

The work is exciting in itself, but it is just the tip of the iceberg.  The LII assembles a huge audience that is doing something that is interesting in its own right.  The ways that experts and laypeople use to find the law, and figure out how or if it applies to them, remain a little mysterious — and we hope that this will be the first of many occasions for outside researchers to help us dispel some of the mysteries.

We look forward to reporting some results in the next newsletter. In the meantime, you might want to take a look at the paper, and experiment with Michael and Eric’s system using text of your own (municipal regulations are a particular favorite of ours).

Jan 302014

Because the United States Supreme Court sits at the pinnacle of our system of justice, each year hundreds of lawyers seek admittance to practice before it–even though most know they will never argue a case there.  But admission to the Supreme Court means privileges in its law library and a separate entrance to the gallery to observe oral arguments.  Most notably, on the day of their admission, new members enjoy the “best seats in the house” to observe that day’s arguments.

photo (1)

So, it’s no surprise that many American law schools hold an annual swearing-in ceremony to help their alumni celebrate the occasion of their admission to practice before the Supreme Court.  But Cornell’s festivities include a unique bonus.  

In what has become an annual tradition, the LII sent the Editor-in-Chief of our Supreme Court Bulletin to Washington to brief the inductees about the cases they would be watching as part of the festivities.  Chanwoo Park attended the celebratory dinner at DC’s Monocle restaurant on December 2nd and provided some very welcome analysis about the cases the inductees would be watching from the Court’s gallery on December 3rd.  

Chanwoo discussed two cases on very different areas of law that nevertheless shared a common feature. In each case, Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal were split in how to apply the law, and the Supreme Court would step in as the final arbiter to clarify the law.  One case examined the scope of preemption of state law claims under the Airline Deregulation Act.  The other involved false advertising claims brought under the Lanham Act.

Chanwoo’s trip was funded not by donor dollars but by the Law School’s Alumni Affairs Office, which is happy to make use of the Bulletin’s unique expertise to provide a much-appreciated overview of the Court proceedings accompanying the swearing-in ceremony.  Stewart Schwab, the Allan R. Tessler Dean of Cornell Law School, also attended the event and was very complimentary of both Chanwoo’s “great job” at the dinner and of the Bulletin generally.  

The Supreme Court Bulletin features student-written analysis of every case to be argued before the Supreme Court.  These profiles feature a helpful recap of the important facts, a breakdown of the legal arguments both sides present in their briefs, and also analysis of the larger issues implicated by each case.   While entirely student-run, the Bulletin staff benefits from the advice of Frank Wagner, the retired Reporter of Decisions for the Supreme Court.  Bulletin excerpts also appear monthly in The Federal Lawyer, the magazine of the Federal Bar Association (FBA).  

While lawyers certainly comprise an avid part of the Bulletin’s readership, the students strive to strip it of the sort of jargon and legalese so often prevalent in “insider” pieces written by lawyers for lawyers.  Bulletin authors also hyperlink their explanations and analysis to a wide variety of primary and secondary resources to enhance the value of each piece for readers from all backgrounds.  But neither the prose nor the analysis in the Bulletin is by any means “dumbed down.”  In fact, we frequently hear from our more than 20,000 email subscribers that the Bulletin is their preferred source for thorough and unbiased assessment of the cases argued before our nation’s highest court.  We even recently heard that from a sitting Federal Judge!  

If you aren’t already familiar with the Bulletin, please have a look here, and we invite you to sign up here to receive this free service via email. 

joalMembers of the Free Access to Law Movement recently announced the debut of a multidisciplinary journal showcasing research related to legal information that is made openly available on the Internet.   Please take a moment to check it out  at http://joal.law.cornell.edu/.

We at the LII and our colleagues around the world hope that JOAL will become a place that can stand on its own to present work about open access to law.  Having previously lacked a home of its own, research on open access to law has traditionally been communicated via the journals of other disciplines, sometimes losing its unique flavor along the way.

In addition to addressing the important policy question of why open access is important, research in this field (and hence the content featured in JOAL) frequently implicates work in other, related disciplines.  For example, the intersection of open access research and information science can provide practical publishing, organizing, and retrieval techniques.  One aim of JOAL is to help academic research about open access find an audience within the community of legal publishers who can make good use of it for practical ends.

When open access flourishes, the public encounters legal information in new ways and often responds in a manner that is both surprising and poorly understood.  In fact, JOAL hopes to provide a forum for studying and discussing such phenomena.

For more than twenty years, the LII has served as something of a beacon for open access advocates in the United States and abroad.  And your donations help ensure we have the funding needed to participate in the conferences and other functions where open access advocates and scholars meet.  In fact, The Journal of Open Access to Law was conceived over a period of years and put finally into motion by participants meeting during the last two Law Via the Internet conferences.

Much of the credit for JOAL belongs not to the LII, but to a veritable all-star team of international academics and researchers.  JOAL’s masthead reveals a truly global team who serve as section editors, reviewers–not to mention the decidedly international roster of authors.  We especially wish to acknowledge the efforts of Spain’s Pompeu Casanovas and the Italian duo of Enrico Francesconi and Ginevra Peruginelli, all of whom worked tirelessly to make JOAL a reality.

Jan 142014

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments about (1) the powers of bankruptcy courts; (2) the taxation of unemployment benefits; and (3) federal property statutes:

(1)  Executive Benefits Insurance Agency v. Arkin [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-1200];

  • Does Article III of the Constitution permit bankruptcy courts to enter final judgments in “core” proceedings as defined in 28 U.S.C. § 157(b)? If not, can bankruptcy courts exercise jurisdiction over litigants through their “implied consent”?

(2)  US v. Quality Stores, Inc.s [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-1408]

  • Are supplemental unemployment benefits paid to laid-off employees considered “wages” under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), and therefore taxable as income?

(3)  Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. US [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-1173]

  • Does the United States have a reversionary interest in a railroad right-of-way created by the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875 after the federal government granted the lands underlying the right-of-way to a private party?

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments in cases about (1) recess appointments and (2) misbehaving debtors in bankruptcy:

(1)  NLRB v Noel Canning [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-5196]

  • If a debtor in bankruptcy commits misconduct during bankruptcy proceedings, can statutory exemptions previously granted to him be revoked as punishment for his misbehavior?

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments in a cases about (1) self-incrimination in a capital punishment trial and (2) the statue of limitations for child custody petitions under the Hague Convention:

(1)  White v. Woodall [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-794]

  • Does a trial court’s rejection of a non-testifying defendant’s request for a no-adverse-influence instruction during the sentencing phase of a capital punishment trial violate that defendant’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when the defendant has pled guilty to all of the alleged crimes and aggravating circumstances?

(2) Lozano v. Alvarez  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-820]

  • Can a district court considering a petition under the Hague Convention for the return of an abducted child to the child’s home country toll the running of the one-year filing deadline when the abducting parent has concealed the whereabouts of the child from the other parent?

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments in a cases about (1) EPA rulemaking and (2) the Child Status Protection Act :

(1)  EPA v. EME Homer City Generation [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-1182]

  • Did the EPA permissibly interpret the phrase “contribute significantly” when it balanced achievable emission reduction levels against the cost of achieving such emission reductions?
  • Can states wait for the EPA to adopt a rule quantifying each state’s “good neighbor” obligations before they adopt a state implementation plan prohibiting emissions that “contribute significantly” to other states’ pollution problems?

(2)  Mayorkas v. Cuellar de Osoria [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-930]

  • Does the Child Status Protection Act grant relief to an alien who qualifies as a child derivative beneficiary at the time a visa petition is initially filed, but who reaches age 21 (“ages out”) when the visa becomes available to the principal beneficiary?