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Dec 042013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments in a case about the rights of citizens of public roads cutting through military installations:

(1)  US v. Apel  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-1038]

  • Can 18 U.S.C. § 1382, which prohibits a person from reentering a military installation after a commanding officer has ordered him not to reenter, be enforced on a portion of a military installation that is subject to a public roadway easement?

The other case scheduled for today, Township of Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Garden Citizens in Action, Inc., settled.  You can nevertheless read our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/11-1507, and some thoughts on the settlement here. 

Mount_Holly-NJ-We-Buy-HousesI read pretty much the same panoply of “important” Supreme Court cases in law school as every other budding lawyer.  Then, like most, I went out into practice and gave little thought to the Supreme Court’s docket.  Sure, the LII Supreme Court Bulletin helped me stay knowledgeable about cases relevant to my practice, as well as the ones garnering national headlines; but, like most lawyers, I was too invested in solving my own clients’ problems to pay much attention to what the Supremes were up to on a daily basis.  In short, the “important” cases in my world were the ones clogging my email inbox and covering every horizontal surface of my office with stacks and stacks of paper.

So maybe I have a little different perspective on the Mount Holly case than those who have been focused on watching the Supreme Court for years and years.  Mount Holly recently settled, which is rather rare for cases awaiting Supreme Court oral argument.  Some see this is a bad thing—an undeveloped parcel in our legal system’s highest-rent neighborhood and a wasted opportunity to get clarity and uniformity in the application of an important statute.  And it may well be all that, but it’s also something else—an excellent outcome for the parties.

It is easy to think of the Supreme Court not so much as a body for deciding actual cases and controversies impacting real people, but as some sort of uber law teacher doling out lessons in Constitutional Law and statutory interpretation.  When we do that, we risk forgetting that Dred Scott was a living, breathing person.  So was Fred Korematsu.  And Oliver Brown.  Or maybe you would insert Norma Jean McCorvey or Dick Heller or Salim Hamdan.   Whatever the case, my point is the same: so much of the what the Court does addresses the very real problems of very real people notwithstanding the broader policy implications for the rest of us.

Which brings me back to the Mount Holly case, which court watchers will tell you was about answering the Question Presented:  “Are disparate impact claims cognizable under the Fair Housing Act?”  But it was also about (or, instead, really about) where the residents of the former Mt. Holly Gardens would live in the aftermath of a long and controversial effort to redevelop their neighborhood into a community where they could not possibly hope to buy or rent homes.

Why did it settle?  Certainly not because the interest groups aligned on either side of the issue suddenly became disinterested. In one of the few pieces discussing the details of the actual settlement (instead of its political or jurisprudential ramifications), MSNBC’s Adam Sherwer reports that the settlement was the result of a local election in which the township voted in pro-settlement councilmembers, who subsequently made good on their promise.  (Perhaps there is a civics lesson about checks-and-balances in here, too….)

Sherwer reports that, under the terms of the settlement, “the township will compensate the residents who want to leave and provide new homes for those who want to stay.”

It’s possible to overemphasize the parties, to be sure.  Many a lawyer who sat through Professor Charles Whitebread’s bar exam prep lecture remembers his mother’s thoughts on the passing of Ernesto Miranda. (He is the unnamed law professor at the start of this article from Philly.com, which recounts the punchline.)  And, as the Daily Writ points out, litigants often file “test cases” in federal district courts specifically in the hopes of making it all the way to the Supreme Court to test the legality of controversial laws.  But there will always be a herd of pundits and experts to focus on the broader implications and ramifications of each decision our Supreme Court renders.  In fact, we assiduously and carefully do it ourselves in each Bulletin because finality and uniformity are, by design, twin features that make the Supreme Court both unique and very, very important to our form of government.  Its rulings affect not only the litigants, but everyone who must now conform their behavior to the Court’s interpretation of what the law means.

But today, the day the parties were to argue Mount Holly, it seems appropriate to take a moment to look past the role of the Supreme Court as the last word in interpreting the law and to remember that, like all American courts, it hears real cases about real people with real problems.

Craig Newton is the Associate Director for Content Development at the Legal Information Institute and is a graduate of Cornell Law School.   Read his bio on our site or on LinkedIn.  Newton’s Law is a blog in which he shares his observations on the law’s connections to, well, everything.

Dec 032013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments about (1) preemption of state law tort claims under the Airline Deregulation Act and (2) standing to bring a false advertising claim under the Lanham Act:

(1)  Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-462]

  • Does the Airline Deregulation Act preempt a state claim for breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing concerning a frequent flyer program?

(2)   Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc. [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-873]

  • What is the appropriate framework to determine standing in a false advertising action under the Lanham Act?
Dec 022013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments about (1) the role of federal courts in private arbitrations and (2) the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act:

(1)   BG Group, PLC v. Republic of Argentina  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-138]

  • Does an arbitrator or a court decide whether a precondition to arbitration has been satisfied?
  • To what extent can federal courts review such decisions?

(2)   Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-515]

  • Can a federal court exercise jurisdiction over a state suit alleging violations of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act where the gaming activity is not located on Indian lands?
  • Does tribal sovereign immunity bar a state from suing a tribe in federal court for violations of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act?
Nov 132013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments about (1) warrantless searches of shared dwellings and (2) the Labor-Management Relations Act:

(1)   Fernandez v. California [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-7822]

  • Can police obtain consent from a cotenant to search a dwelling after another cotenant who objected to the search is lawfully removed?

(2)   Unite Here Local 355 v. Mulhall [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-99]

  • Does an agreement stipulating that an employer will remain neutral and give access to employee information in exchange for a union’s support of an employer-friendly ballot initiative, constitute a “thing of value” in violation § 302 of the Labor-Management Relations Act; or, must a thing of value be monetary for purposes of § 302?
Nov 122013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments about (1) the knowledge required to convict a defendant of aiding and abetting the use of a firearm; (2) criminal liability and causation for drug-related deaths; and (3) retaliation against private contractors working for publicly held companies under Sarbanes-Oxley:

(1)   Rosemond v. US  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-895]

  • In order to convict a defendant of aiding and abetting the use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence or a drug-trafficking crime, does the government need to prove that the defendant intentionally facilitated or encouraged the use of the firearm, or merely that the defendant knew that the principal used a firearm during the crime?

(2)   Burrage v. US [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-7515]

  • Can a defendant who sells drugs to someone who dies of an overdose be held criminally liable for that person’s death if the drug contributed to the victim’s death but was not the sole cause?

(3)   Lawson v. FMR, LLC  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-3]

  • Does the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1514A, which forbids publicly traded companies, mutual funds, and contractors or subcontractors of such companies from discriminating or retaliating against an employee because of certain protected conduct, protect an employee of a privately-held contractor or subcontractor of a public company?

“At its most fundamental level, the problem is one of access to the sources of law on the African continent. Judges, legal professionals, civil society organizations and the general public have difficulties in accessing legal information. This is negatively impacting on the rule of law, access to justice, and economic development.” – Mariya Badeva-Bright, AfricanLII

bannerimg01AfricanLII is unusual.  Like the 22 other LII “namesakes” around the globe, it promotes open access to legal information. Unlike any of the others, it is not identified with a particular country or jurisdiction.  Instead, it supports the construction and operation of “national LIIs” in African countries.  Right now, it helps 8 African nations (Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, the Seychelles, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe) make their law freely available to the public.  Next year, it will add two more.  And it is working with partners in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, and Zambia to form networks of regional cooperation that will make each of the national organizations more resilient, more effective, and far more self-sufficient.

What’s our involvement?  The LII has worked on the problem of legal access in Africa since 1996, when we were instrumental in the founding of the Zambian LII, ZamLII. More recently, working with the Open Society Institute and the Canadian International Development Research Center and with LIIs in Africa, India, and Canada, we have identified the critical success factors that will allow others to do as we have done.  In turn, we’ve learned how to make legal information happen under conditions that we can barely imagine.  Sometimes the help has been at a more practical level  – a few months ago, Sara Frug and the LII’s engineering team helped AfricanLII move its hosting services to a more stable platform in the “cloud”, offering faster and more reliable service to African users of the service.  We can be — and often are — called into a strategy session at a moment’s notice, using Skype and collaborative document writing and editing to put us “just down the hall” from AfricanLII’s headquarters in Johannesburg.

Often, we’ve been called on to explain the practical advantages of open access to law.  In Africa, open access to law helps ensure basic human rights — and it also leads to stronger economies and better public administration.  As LII Director Tom Bruce remarks, “Public legal information does more than simply saying what the law is.  Knowing what the law is has incredible value if you are involved in a legal proceeding, of course.  But legal information also provides a showcase for official bodies, advertises opportunities for economic development, provides information about the stability and likely direction of the business climate, and encourages the formation of transnational communities of practice”.

Mariya says, “We have heard of places in Africa where lawyers base their arguments in court purely on personal conviction, rather than on the law.  Where there are LIIs, we begin to see that legal argument and the quality of justice are improving.”

We’re proud to help make that happen — and not so proud that we can’t learn from those in Africa that are making it happen every day.

Nov 062013

This August, Craig NewtonCraig Newton ‘07, (re)joined the LII as our new Associate Director for Content Development. While a student at Cornell Law School, Craig was the Editor-in-Chief of the LII Supreme Court Bulletin.

He spent the last six years at the law firm Cooley LLP litigating a broad range of commercial disputes for companies such as Adobe, Facebook, and Qualcomm before returning to Ithaca.  Having left a career as first a naval flight officer and then an intelligence analyst to attend law school, Craig calls upon all facets of his prior experience as he mentors teams of law students, manages our network of volunteers and legal professionals, monitors the website to discern usage trends and patterns, and pursues new partnership initiatives–all with an eye toward improving a range of products, including the Supreme Court Bulletin and case collection, the WEX legal encyclopedia/dictionary, the constellation of materials surrounding the US Constitution, and our ever-more capable editions of the US Code and the Code of Federal Regulations.

He and Associate Director for Technology Sara Frug are working together at the intersection of legal content and engineering to improve search and navigation features, as well as on a number of experiments intended to make our content more discoverable and more usable.

We are enthusiastic about his presence and the capabilities he adds to our team, and we look forward to your continued suggestions and feedback on our editorial content.

With the addition of Craig — and of consulting designer Manolo Bevia – the LII crew now numbers 9 1/4, delivering services to over 24 million unique visitors each year.

mohammedThe Semantic Technology and Business Conference showcases business applications from the leading semantic web companies and researchers: RPI, Stanford, MIT, and PARC, as well as Hoffmann-La Roche, Walmart, Yahoo, and Google. At the conference, the LII’s semantic web engineer, Mohammad AL-Asswad, Ph.D., presented approaches to improving access to import/export regulations in agriculture. We had observed that off the shelf, a search engine doesn’t know how to establish the context of a section of the CFR. Mohammad showed the results of his work combining a set of natural language processing techniques with a government-supplied subject vocabulary and our own metadata in order to improve search results.

In July, the International Association of Agricultural Information Specialists brought together 125 delegates from 28 countries for its World Congress, hosted this year by Cornell University’s Mann Library. Agriculture librarians presented the results of research on subjects ranging from innovation proliferation among small scale pineapple farmers in Ghana to digital librarianship in Indian agricultural libraries to open access in institutional repositories. Mohammad presented at the poster session, showing the connections between agricultural regulations and scientific literature.

Why? Regulators need to know about the science related to the regulations they are making and enforcing. Scientists need to know about regulations that affect their research; they often also want the opportunity to know about new rulemakings that affect areas in which they have expertise. Using natural language processing techniques, Mohammad was able to find topics in the regulations that map to keywords in the agricultural ontology AGRIS. You can see preliminary results of this feature using the “Find the Science” feature here.

Nov 062013

Shutdown_government_graphic_20131001182006_320_240The morning of October 2, the United States Government shut down for the first time in nearly 18 years, as a congressional stalemate froze funding and furloughed some government workers.

Aside from more overt casualties — closed federal offices, and shuttered national monuments and parks — some of the government’s websites were not updated or taken completely offline. Behind the scenes, some large data sets were made unavailable, as in the case of the the Library of Congress whose machine-readable schemas became unavailable to applciations around the world that depend on them. Our engineering team made copies of the MODS, MADS and PREMIS schemas available on LII servers to help other applications survive the shutdown.

On the front end, many affected sites posted notices on their home page or on splash screens that attributed the outages to “a lapse in federal government funding,” and those that remained open, like the National Weather Service, continued to point blame at funding while stating that they were remaining available in the “interest of public safety and security.” But who exactly decides what’s in the public interest? It seems to us that the laws of the United States are pretty important, but if the government were to suddenly take them offline completely (as they did with other public sites like the United States Census and NASA) we would still be expected to know and to follow government laws and regulations, wouldn’t we?

Of course, we see this as yet another reason why LII is so important– making the laws available without cost and protecting our right to know and understand these laws without being subjected to the whims of political in-fighting. But this shutdown also produced out some interesting traffic data, which demonstrates just how vital the LII remains to those working in the government sector.

In the two weeks of the shutdown, the LII saw a modest, overall three percent increase in traffic to our site, but when we looked at the locations people were accessing from, those statistics told a different story. Visits from several large cities were up significantly, 14% in New York, San Francisco and San Diego, for example. But traffic from cities with a high degree of federal offices fell drastically– 22% in Boston and 20% in Washington DC. Conversely, the state of Maryland, home to many Washington DC workers, demonstrated a 25% increase in traffic during the same time period.

These numbers might suggest that people who needed access to law continued to receive it at the official government websites, or that they came to the LII thinking that the government sites would be shut down. But it also suggests that a significant number of government workers on furlough from their jobs in DC and Boston visit the LII each day. And that says something even more important. It suggests that thousands of federal workers prefer the LII to the official government primary legal collections, which would confirm anecdotal evidence we hear from government employees all the time. So even though the official sites remained open, the LII is the site of choice for many who rely on accurate current legal information to perform the government’s work. And that’s a recommendation we’re proud to have.