skip navigation
search

Welcome back to our semi-regular “Anatomy of a Traffic Spike” feature. For the uninitiated, we like to examine and share instances where current events cause something to trend on our pages for unforeseen (and usually unforeseeable reasons). We use these occasions to study how people interact with the law in general and our website in particular. And these moments confirm the importance of our commitment to aiding public discourse by making primary source materials easily available to the public.  

This time, we look to the U.S. Code and specifically to 18 USC 2071. Let’s see if you can guess what it addresses from only the following clues:

  • In the 12 months prior to February of 2020, the most pageviews in a single day that code section had ever received on our website was 103.
  • Only 5 times in that same 12 month period had there been more than 50 pageviews in a single day.
  • In fact, the page had been viewed only 7,314 times during that 12-month span.
  • On Tuesday, February 4th, however, a record 315 people viewed the page a total of 367 times. Almost all of these pageviews occurred after 10:00pm Eastern Standard Time.     

                   (This is your first big hint.)

  • The very next day the page saw 207,657 visits. It helped make February 5, 2020 our busiest single day in terms of total sessions since Google Analytics came on the scene many years ago to help us track such things. (Legend has it that since we were the only place to have Bush v. Gore online when it was handed down on December 12, 2000, the site averaged more than 5000 hits per minute for 14 hours.)
  • Traffic continued to come to that page at a steady clip. Almost 100,000 people viewed it the next day, and more than 25,000 the day after that. (Remember, this is a page that had only hit triple digits once in the previous year.) Even as we write this, traffic to that page still hasn’t returned to normal. February 17–almost two weeks after the “event”–saw more than enough hits to triple the previous “record” of 103 pageviews.    
  • We couldn’t find a single contemporaneous news report linking to 18 USC 2071 on our site. Over 99% of its traffic has come from search engines (like Google or Bing) and links in social media posts (such as Facebook and Twitter).  

                    (This would be your second big hint if you looked at this stuff the way we do!)

Okay, so far that’s all pretty vague for those of you trying to guess. Here is some important context you’ll find helpful:

  • Prominent fact-checking websites felt the need to address the specific event that gave rise to this spike: and,
  • The 2020 State of the Union address began at 9:00pm EST on February 4th and ran for about an hour and eighteen minutes.  (see first big hint above)

Got it yet? Well, here’s a hyperlink:  https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2071

If you’re still not clear on exactly what folks were looking up online, check out the aforementioned fact-checking articles on PolitiFact and Snopes here!

The Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School enjoyed a very successful year in 2019.  Here are some numbers that tell the story of our success and some context from the many folks who use and support our work:

33,000,347 people used our website and viewed 151,553,871 pages of content, including:

53,885,373 pages of the CFR, which let them run their businesses, do their jobs, or just live their lives like the recent donor who told us: “I use the Code of Federal Regulations to ensure I am meeting the regulatory requirements when performing engineering functions.”  

49,866,781 pages of the US Code in order to help themselves and their clients, like the former nonprofit and governmental attorney who told us that “at both jobs, our legal department budgets were limited and we had limited access to commercial legal research tools.”  

–  12,162,296 pages of various federal rules, used primarily by lawyers, litigants, and law students, like the one who recently left us a note saying, “Thanks for getting me through evidence class!”  

– 11,509,034 pages of Wex, where they found plain-language, viewpoint-neutral explanations of legal issues and concepts such as this visitor who left us a comment saying she thinks “it is very important for people to have easy access to a website that explains the law in layman’s terms….” 

5,907,626 pages of the United States Constitution; because, as one donor put it, “Too many people rely on news reports that reference the Constitution and statutes, but they don’t read the full text.”  

4,613,666 pages of Supreme Court opinions and Bulletin Previews, which was the destination of a professor who told us, “I am a Constitutional Law professor and I’m constantly researching case law.  LII is one of many resources I look to for accurate information.

1,581,297 views of the Annotated Constitution in its first full year since we re-launched it on Constitution Day, 2018.  In November, we received a note from an admirer who told us, “I have found the Legal Information Institute to be a very useful research tool. I frequently access the LII Constitution Annotated for detailed and reliable information.” 

132,000 dollars went into the Tom Bruce Legal Information Innovation Fellowship Fund.  Once it reaches $400,000, that endowed fund will pay for a Fellow to spend the summer in Ithaca each year advancing the state of the art in legal informatics and related fields.

240 countries and territories sent us visitors in 2019, such as an attorney in Mexico who wrote to tell us of his admiration for the Constitution, or a PhD student in China who used our website to write his dissertation on bankruptcy laws.  During our campaign, we also heard from a Court-watcher in the UK, a Canadian who tells us our website has resources her local library lacks, and even a Hungarian who simply said, “I like what you do.”  

94 students from law, information science, and computer science helped us on a variety of projects in 2019.  All were either paid for their work or received course credit.  

27 years was the length of time LII Co-Founder Tom Bruce was at the controls.  He retired on July 1, 2019 after fourteen years as the LII’s solo Director.   Longtime LII employees Sara Frug and Craig Newton now serve as Co-Directors, returning the LII back to its original leadership structure of one technologist and one lawyer.    

9 full-time staff run the LII.  

  • 5 technologists
  • 1 office manager
  • 1 communications specialist
  • 1 fundraiser
  • 1 lawyer

1 mission.  Same as always.

Those are just some of the numbers that are on our minds–and some thoughts about what they mean to the people who use our site each day–that we wanted to share with you before 2020 gets too far down the road.   

As always, in the coming months we’ll be periodically sending you updates about what we’re working on, the interesting folks we’re working with, and anything else we think you might appreciate.  We’re looking forward to our best year yet at LII, and we’re grateful to have you along for the ride.

Craig & Sara

Friends,

Something special happens when you make legal materials available to the world without cost or other access barriers: people use them. And not just for themselves, but to help others.

“I use your site regularly in my efforts to advocate for individuals with disabilities. I appreciate it very much.”

And today only, your gift goes twice as far. Our friends at Justia have pledged to match every gift we receive this Giving Tuesday. No limits. No restrictions. No fine print.

DOUBLE YOUR IMPACT TODAY ONLY

Everyone wants to give more, to do more, to help more. Your (doubled!) gift funds our work, which in turn enables thousands of worthy causes to carry out their good works without paying for access to expensive legal databases.

“Your site constantly helps me give Veterans the help they need for their claims.”

“As in house counsel for a nonprofit, I appreciate the access very much.”

“We work in healthcare, we could not make it through a day without you all!”

The calling card of the LII website has always been the creative application of technology that allows 30 million people each year to get the law without cost. But the real magic of the LII is the way our website empowers so many of those people to take their knowledge of the law and go help others. We couldn’t be more proud of that. And we couldn’t be more grateful for the way you make that possible–today and every day.

DOUBLE YOUR IMPACT TODAY ONLY

Thank you,

Craig Newton
Co-Director
Legal Information Institute

Friends:
We can’t say it often enough: thank you. Your support helps millions of people find and understand the law each year, and it is a powerful vote of confidence in the LII’s mission. Over the past year, you have helped us navigate big changes and new challenges while continuing to serve the millions of people who rely on the LII to keep up the beat.

DONATE NOW

This year you helped us pull off a high-wire act: while behind the scenes just about everything changed, for our audience, it was business as usual. More than 30 million people from 240 countries and territories — and, this year for the first time, every continent — used the LII site. Readers came to us from Canada and Mexico, from India and China, from Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa. For the first time, we had a reader from Antarctica, where the population ranges from about 1100 people in winter to a bustling 5000 in the summer, and the claim “I live for research” is not at all far-fetched. You’ve helped us disseminate legal information to people who need it across the globe, literally.

“Your previews and the summaries triggered many news articles for the 17 years I was running a daily newspaper in Costa Rica.” – J.B.

Your donations make high-quality, non-partisan legal analysis available to the public – not just now, but also for the future. When Tom Bruce, our co-founder and director of 27 years, retired from the LII to start his next career as an electronic musician,* the inevitable trips down memory lane reminded us that while some of our work from the early days became obsolete (we’re looking at you, CD-ROM), much more of that work became reliable, and some of it became indispensable. In the mid-1990s, Cornell Law students began work on LIIBULLETIN-NY, which summarized New York Court of Appeals decisions that would otherwise not be available. Once that court set up its own website, the project transitioned to previewing the US Supreme Court docket, and this year, the LII Supreme Court Bulletin Previews celebrated their 15th anniversary. These previews might seem like ephemeral content, but they live multiple lives: the law students who staff the Bulletin write for today’s audience, but previews from prior terms are just as likely to garner traffic as the most anticipated cases of the current term. This year, the preview for Madison v. Alabama (cruel and unusual punishment where a prisoner cannot remember the crime due to dementia) topped the charts for new previews, but it was eclipsed in traffic by a preview of the 2010 Second Amendment case McDonald v. Chicago. We don’t always know what will come back on the jukebox, but the jukebox is well-stocked.

“I did not study law, but I work in a highly-regulated industry and my job has been increasingly affected by changing regulations. I was introduced to LII by one of my colleagues in our legal department and I have found it to be a great resource.” – J.D.

People often come to LII to help make sense of the many ways in which the law affects their industry, their government, and their daily lives. This year, 15 USC 206 (Standard Gauge for Sheet and Plate Iron and Steel) made the transition from one-hit wonder to steady top-100. We were not entirely surprised to discover that the news had driven some new readers to 52 USC 30121 (contributions and donations by foreign nationals) and 5 CFR 2635.203 (defined terms in ethics rules for Executive Branch employees). The case of a brokenhearted husband brought readers to our Wex article on Alienation of Affections. Overall, this year you helped us serve hundreds of thousands of people in local, state, and federal government; more than a hundred thousand people visited the site from hospitals and medical research centers; and pro bono advocates wrote to thank us for helping make their legal research affordable. We could not help them without help from you.

“I am the Internet’s TaxMama and teach about 80 distinct classes a year. I also write – blogs and books. My materials are full of links to Cornell’s Legal Information Institute.” – E.R.

This past year was an occasion to focus on the future, which includes the students who will be the next generation’s entrepreneurs, civil servants, and civic leaders. Whether they come to learn about what content they may display on a banner at school sporting events, what support for their individualized education program is required, or what the Constitution has to say about free speech on college campuses, readers from 437 public schools, 274 community colleges, and 3207 universities who used the site in the past year give us inspiration and feedback – and keep us moving forward.

DONATE NOW

None of this could happen without your help. We tend to notice big impacts and dramatic usage spikes, but behind it all the LII is a group of nine people who work every day to use their skills and strengths to provide a reliable service to the public. It’s Sylvia deciphering the language and markup of the US Code and CFR; it’s Jim juggling accessibility audits, and Ayham writing APIs, and Nic making sure everything runs quickly enough; it’s Neli keeping track of our audience, and Julie keeping track of our funders, and Val keeping track of all of us. This year, Craig and I are particularly grateful to have completed the leadership transition without any torches and pitchforks, and without any disruption to the website and services that so many members of the public have come to depend upon. Your support throughout this process has meant the world to us.

Twice a year – coinciding with the Supreme Court’s term finale and the end of the calendar year – we ask you to contribute to the LII. Your donations keep the nine of us focused on what the LII can give the public, both now and in the future, and help the millions of people who rely on the LII – as well as everyone they serve, as teachers, civil servants, pro bono advocates, and in too many other ways to count. The beat does go on – thank you for making that possible.

All the best from all of us,

Sara, Craig, Neli, Nic, Val, Jim, Julie, Ayham, and Sylvia

DONATE NOW

*No joke – drop us a note if you want a link to his Soundcloud.

In our last newsletter, we told the story of a traffic spike to 18 USC §2074 caused by a particularly curious hurricane map.  Response to that story was such that we’ve made “Anatomy of a Traffic Spike” a regular feature in our quasi-regular newsletters!  

This edition takes us about as far away from the US Code as you can get on our website–to the (largely) student-authored original content found in our Wex collection.  News stories like this one in early October told of a North Carolina man who was awarded $750,000 when he successfully sued his ex-wife’s lover for alienation of affections.  

When we looked at how our (very short) Wex article “Alienation of Affections” was performing during that time, we saw something we don’t see very often: the “?” symbol.  An infinite number of people viewed that article compared to the same week in 2018.  

Google analytics screenshot of traffic spike

A page that literally no one was interested in 12 months ago became our single most popular Wex page on October 2nd and 3rd, with close to 11,000 views.   In fact, it was the second most popular page on the entire website for those two days, behind only 52 USC §30121 (“Contributions and donations by foreign nationals”- must be a reason that was trending, too…).

The direct links like the one in the CNN story we’ve linked to above certainly helped, but (as usual) a lot of the traffic came straight from people using their favorite search engine to learn about something new to them.  

As usual, that leads us back to talking about the technology that goes into everything we do.  Because our web pages load fast, feature clean markup, and are widely linked to from all around the internet, search engines tend to recognize our work as top-quality and to suggest our pages over other available resources.  That means folks looking for, say, a working definition of “alienation of affections” wind up getting our straightforward Wex entry and not a page offered by someone with an axe to grind, and agenda to advance, or a product or service to sell.  

Between our primary resources like the US Code or CFR and our original content like Wex and the Supreme Court Bulletin Previews, we do our best to cover the field and ensure that when the public comes to our website to learn about the law, we’ll have it there no matter what topic has captured the limelight.  And, when that happens, you’ll read it about here.  

Screen shot of the Oyez website menu with courthouse in the background

Among the many headlines we saw about the Supreme Court during the first month of its new term were a few that particularly resonated with us.  Over at The Oyez Project, we work with our friends at Justia to make all of the Court’s audio available to the public alongside a synchronized transcript that identifies who is speaking, whether it’s the litigants or the justices.  

In October, two of the justices made the news specifically because of what they said during oral argument, and Oyez has it all.   In Ramos v. Louisiana, the Court was considering Louisiana’s use of non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal trials.  In a move most law professors would envy, Justice Kavanaugh set up a hypothetical and then asked a blunt question that caught the press’s attention.  Want to hear it? Do this:

  1. Click here for the Ramos case page:  https://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/18-5924
  2. Click the black text next to the speaker symbol under the case title to hear the audio and see the transcript.
  3. Using the slider under the transcript, move to the 53:20 mark.
  4. (Make sure your sound is turned on, or just read along to the highlighted transcript!)

The next time the Court was in the news for what was said, it was Justice Sotomayor earning the dubious distinction of being the first to break the Court’s new “two-minute rule.”  Here’s the link to the case page for Kansas v. Garciahttps://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/17-834.

Once again, click the black text under the case name in the upper left of the page.  Then move the slider to 28:33. But keep listening, she gets back to her question in no time!

We think the audio we make available at Oyez offers the public a unique glimpse at how the Supreme Court operates.  Paired with our Bulletin Previews, these services allow court-watchers, students, and the general public a chance to understand what goes on at the Supreme Court and why it matters.    

“Free legal information for everyone” means for *everyone*, regardless of disability. In our newsletter last spring, we mentioned that we were embarking on a full accessibility remediation of the LII web site. We’re happy to report that we’ve made a great deal of progress, and in the process put building blocks into place that will make it easier for us to deliver new features more quickly in the future. 

What does this mean for the website? Here are a few examples: 

  • The structure of the text is more apparent: we’ve darkened the links and added underlining where links combine with surrounding plain text.  We’ve tuned the contrast to make it easier to read text on darker backgrounds. We’ve added structured headings to make it faster to scan section by section. 
screenshot of UCC with high contrast, underlined links, and structured headings
  • The information is more usable: Sometimes government documents use pictures to represent data – and even print them sideways! We’ve been “unscrambling” these “eggs”, converting the pictures back into data (and printing them right-side up!).
  • We’ve updated a lot of our content in the process: As we’ve gone through the site, we’ve noticed that some of our outdated content was still accessible on the website. We’ve updated what we could and redirected the rest to more current resources.

Accessibility improvements make the web better for everyone – people with disabilities, web crawlers, novice users, and everyone else – we hope you’ll let us know if there’s anything we can do to help make the website more accessible for you. 

One part of this job that never gets old is seeing traffic pop up in unexpected places: a seldom-accessed section of the US Code, an obscure regulation buried deep in the CFR, or an arcane Supreme Court case that’s somehow made its way into the public consciousness. And we learn a lot about how people interact with the law when current events drive people to our website. Most importantly, these moments make us feel good that we are contributing to the public discourse by making primary source materials easily available to the public, so that debate is informed by what the law actually says and not by what some pundit or Twitter troll claims it says. We watched a textbook example unfold just last week, and we thought it might be fun and informative to share the story with you in a series of images.

It all seems to have started on Twitter:

Tweet by Dennis Merserau @wxdam: It is a violation of federal law to falsify a National Weather Service forecast and pass it off as official, as President Trump did here. 18 US Code 2074

18 USC §2074 quickly became the most viewed page on our website:

Google Analytics live view: right now: 1298 visitors

It’s always interesting to see where the traffic is coming from. Here are the top 20 sources of traffic into 18 USC §2074 last week (t.co is Twitter):

We even made Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” monologue! (3:20)

By the end of the weekend, the excitement had mostly abated and traffic to 18 USC §2074 had slowed to a mere trickle compared to its peak a few days earlier:

Which brings us back to where we started.  By freeing the law from behind commercial paywalls and ponderous government websites, we help people find the answers they need to run their businesses, solve their problems, understand the world around them, do their jobs, or sometimes just to argue on Twitter.  Thank you for your continuing interest in, and support of, that mission.

If you receive this newsletter, that means you probably care about Free Law in America–or at the very least you’ve benefited enough from it in your personal or professional lives to become acquainted with us in a way that distinguishes you from our other 38 million annual users.  

This term, the United States Supreme Court will hear Georgia vs. Public.Resource.OrgThat link will take you to the case page on our Oyez Project website. 

State’s asserting copyright in their laws has been a problem since the dawn of online legal research–if not longer.  In 2011, Fastcase CEO Ed Walters penned a blog post for our Vox Populii blog he titled, “Tear Down This (Pay)Wall:  The End of Private Copyright in Public Statutes.”  

Since it turns out that posts on geeky blogs, no matter how well-reasoned and impassioned, tend not to bring about major structural changes in our legal system, Ed (now also known as “Professor Walters” based on his adjunct gigs at both Cornell Tech and the Georgetown University Law Center) re-worked and re-published that article in 2019 in this post from Medium.  

If you want to see free legal resources, access to justice projects, and legal technology thrive in this country, you should be aware of this case.  Needless to say, we at the LII share Ed’s point-of-view. We hope you’ll take a minute to read the two linked pages above and learn about this issue that impacts the LII and our friends in the Free Law Community.

Twenty five years anniversary. Birthday cupcake with white burning candles with red border in the form of number Twenty five.

The LII’s Supreme Court Bulletin staff has begun its work researching and drafting Previews of all the cases the Court will hear in its 2019 – 2020 term. The Bulletin has changed and grown since its original founding by members of Cornell Law School’s Classes of 1996 and ‘97.  Until 2004, it focused almost exclusively on New York’s highest court–the Court of Appeals. (LIIBulletin-Patent examined patent cases before the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court in the late ‘90s.) In 2004, the Bulletin switched its focus to the United States Supreme Court.  Since 2005, it has provided student-written analysis of every case to be argued there. These days we reach over 16,000 email subscribers and over 290,000 website visitors every year with our Supreme Court previews. We are also consistently referenced by SCOTUSBlog and featured in each issue of the Federal Bar Association’s magazine, The Federal Lawyer.

In March, we introduced you to the new student leadership of the LII Bulletin, Editor-in-Chief Kathryn Adamson, Executive Editor Angela Zhu, and Outreach Coordinator Isaac Syed.  They are now joined by a complete team of Associates (second-year law students) and Managing Editors (third-year law students who worked as Associates last year) to continue the Bulletin’s work for the twenty-fifth year.  

With the students of the LII Bulletin looking to the future, the staff of the LII is taking a moment to look back to the past.  Twenty-five years is a very, very long time in the life of the internet! The LII is grateful for all the hard work and dedication of the over-500 students who have worked for the Bulletin during that time.   

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.