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Elephant trunk being fed carrot

We often find the tale of the blind men and the elephant useful for explaining the many facets of the Legal Information Institute. In the story, each encounters a different part of the elephant – the tusk, the trunk, the legs – and comes away with a different perception of what an elephant is (it’s like a spear, like a snake, like a tree).  

You see where this is going, right?

GIVE

This old parable is a useful way of explaining how the LII is different things not just to our casual users, but even to our friends and supporters like you:  

  • Some admire our expertise in legal informatics and how we use that knowledge to extract, organize, and present statutes and regulations in usable formats with helpful features.   
  • Others appreciate our role as a source of unbiased explanations of legal concepts, constitutional principles, and Supreme Court cases.
  • Still others value our contributions as leaders and collaborators in a global movement to provide open access to legal information and keep it in the public domain.

Whatever part of the elephant you perceive when you come to our website, our goal is that you encounter a reliable source of trustworthy information that helps you find what you need to do your work, understand the news, or just live your life. Our hope is that you appreciate how your support has helped create that same experience for the more than 36 million other visitors to law.cornell.edu so far this year.   

GIVE

We take no money from Cornell University. Instead, we rely entirely on funds we bring in ourselves. Your support pays our small staff, covers the costs of cloud servers and software, allows us to compensate our student workers, and even lets us venture into the world to share our expertise and help others bring their open access legal initiatives to life.  

And we appreciate it more than we could ever express.  

With Gratitude,
Craig Newton, Co-Director

LII has always strived to discover new and better ways to make the law more findable and understandable for the public, which has given us a relentlessly practical orientation toward research. Most of the time, we have our hands full keeping up with the academic literature and supervising student research projects, but from time to time we find an opportunity to become involved in more formal research projects in one capacity or another. And very occasionally a project comes along that helps us consolidate what we have learned and enhance everything we offer the public.  

Last spring, LII, along with the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) and Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab became advisors to a new Law-and-Artificial-Intelligence research project entitled “FAI: Using AI to Increase Fairness by Improving Access to Justice.” Law-and-AI luminaries Professors Kevin Ashley and Diane Litman at the University of Pittsburgh lead the project, which aims to bring the fruits of law and AI research to the public. Their project proposal struck a chord with us, particularly when they noted that “Although many AI tools are already available to law firms and legal departments, these tools do not typically reach members of the public and legal service practitioners except through expensive commercial paywalls.” 

We were very fortunate this semester to be able to arrange for LII’s language and data science specialist, Dr. Sylvia Kwakye, to embed with the research team. This arrangement has given her a chance to think through the research challenges associated with very particular natural language interpretation tasks while exploring in detail the various ways in which the research data (notably the rules from Ph.D. student Huihui Xu’s research and caselaw sentences from CMU postdoc Jaromir Savelka’s research) could be used to enhance primary law resources on the LII website. We are particularly excited about the potential boon to public understanding afforded by the ability to connect definitions from state and federal regulations to explanations from the jurisprudence in the Caselaw Access Project corpus (see “Spotlight on Free“). We’ve also been heartened to see the ways in which the results of our most recent editorial enhancements to the Wex definitions (see “Anatomy of a Traffic Spike: Hard Work Pays Off“), along with the output of M.Eng. research work extracting definitions from U.S. Code, CFR, and now state regulations, might be of use.

We’re grateful for the chance to learn from the Law-and-AI research community and excited to bring our small role in this project full circle.

Join us for a panel talk hosted by LII as part of International Open Access week!

In the context of a university such as Cornell, open access is often viewed through the lens of academic scholarship. But it can be, and is, so much more. Many Cornell programs further Cornell’s land grant mission by providing open access resources to the general public. A panel of representatives from some of these programs will discuss their work, its impacts, the importance of open access to their mission, and how they strive to make their respective fields more accessible and equitable through their work with open access projects.
Moderator: Craig Newton, Co-Director, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law
Panelists:

  • Sara Frug, Co-Director, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law
  • Jim DelRosso, Assistant Director, Catherwood Library, ILR School
  • Christopher Wood, Managing Director, Center for Avian Population Studies and Director, eBird

Dial-In Information

Friday, October 29, 2021 at 11:30am to 12:30pm

Click below to join the panel:

https://cornell.zoom.us/j/96580546684?pwd=T3FVdTV2ODNJVjFDZG83R3A2UmJDdz09

Tune in for for a full week of panels, presentations and resources on building structural equity to knowledge with Open Access across Cornell University and beyond:

https://guides.library.cornell.edu/OAWeek

Dear Reader:

After a tangent in our last newsletter to talk about the demise of ROSS, a legal research platform we’d previously featured in this space, we’re back to shining a light on free legal research tools you might not know about. If this were an article about NCAA hockey, I’d be loath to give Harvard any credit.  But since it’s not, we’re featuring the Caselaw Access Project.

Best,
Craig

Library

Back in 2015, Harvard Law School announced the launch of the Caselaw Access Project (CAP), a project of its Library Innovation Lab. This is a collection of almost seven million cases covering about 360 years of American judicial opinions. Though we know that more than one librarian felt a little queasy at the sight of venerable old case reporters having their spines severed and bindings undone so that their pages could be fed through high-speed scanners, this effort to digitize and democratize all of American case law was very much a welcome announcement.

You can find the results at case.law

Though it’s easy enough to search the CAP database by keyword or citation, for example, the folks at the Library Innovation Lab and throughout the librarian community have other plans in mind for the 36.3 million or so pages in the collection. Their blog tracks and explains feature development in the database. For a lawyer who thinks very old legal opinions are good for nothing but ending sentences that begin with “It is well-settled that…,” each and every post in that blog will be an education. Similarly, a recent article in the online magazine of the American Association of Law Librarians describes projects in data mining, linguistics, link rot, citation analysis, natural language processing, named entity recognition, and topic modeling that are all being conducted using the CAP database.   

CAP is not, and does not pretend to be, a one-stop shop for legal research. It appears, for example, that not everything that courts have done after the project went online has made its way into CAP. For instance, our current favorite Supreme Court Case, Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org is in CAP with a note in the sidebar that the “case source” is the commercial legal research service Fastcase. However, some recently-published federal appellate decisions that cite the case, such as Freeman v. Wainwright  and Craft Smith, LLC v. EC Design, LLC do not (yet) seem to be.  

In the end, CAP is a potential (and potentially powerful) tool to add to the free online legal research sources you should know about. While you may well find that it doesn’t answer all of your prayers for a free case law search engine, you should be aware that researchers in several fields are using its large data set and API to do work that is likely to make its way into the tools that the next generation of lawyers will use.  

Rachel Skene, Stewart Rickert

October, as it always does, brought the start of a new term at the U.S. Supreme Court.  And, as we always do, the LII welcomed a new team of students to our Supreme Court Bulletin Previews staff. Leading the crew this year are Rachel Skene and Stewart Rickert.  

Rachel is the Editor-in-Chief. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Puget Sound in 2017 with bachelor’s degrees in both International Relations and Affairs and also French Literature. Rachel taught in France and Oregon before enrolling at Cornell Law School.  

Stewart is the Executive Editor. He graduated magna cum laude from Wake Forest University in 2016 with a degree in Economics and Political Science.  Stewart worked as an investment banking analyst before coming to Cornell Law School.  

All 36 students who make up the Bulletin Previews staff (12 third-year and 24 second-year students) are eager to bring you comprehensive and viewpoint-neutral analysis of each case before it’s argued. If you don’t already subscribe to this free service, you can sign up here:
https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/subscribe

Meanwhile, in case you missed it, we wanted to feature our work on an interesting case the Court heard earlier this month. In United States v. Zubaydah, the Court will decide how much deference a trial court should give the federal government when the latter seeks to invoke the state secrets privilege when withholding evidence from discovery in civil litigation. You can find our Preview here:  https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/20-827.

Dictionary page

Usually, we use this space to feature a conspicuous bump in traffic to some part of our website and map it to a recent news event.  This time, however, we’re going to do something a little bit different.  In an article back in April, we told the story of how we’d used the extra student labor made available to us during the Summer of 2020 (as their other summer jobs shrunk or vanished entirely) to re-invigorate more than 1,000 definitions in our Wex collection.  

In that same article, we introduced Nichole McCarthy, LII’s new Original Content Collections Manager.  She spent the Summer of 2021 continuing the Wex Definitions Project, and her student crew improved upon the output from the summer prior.  In total we have renovated around 2,500 Wex definitions, making each one longer and more comprehensive while linking it to more related content on our website such as statutes, US Supreme Court decisions, and other Wex articles.  We also added dozens of new definitions.

All of that work makes those pages better in the eyes of search engines, resulting in our Wex pages being more findable to the general public. And the public has, indeed, found Wex. This graph shows Wex pageviews up 20% from July through September of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.  

Google Analytics graphic showing visitors increase over a period of time

Considering all that was in the headlines during this time last year–the election, the pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement all come instantly to mind–it’s amazing that Wex traffic is up dramatically this year.  All signs point to the output of our Wex Definitions Project as the reason why.  

Of course, traffic in-and-of itself is not our goal. The purpose of Wex is to provide useful, viewpoint neutral explanations of legal terms and concepts to anyone who needs them. We like to think that some segment of that increased viewership was spared a trip to other websites offering answers that are at the very least aligned with a political or social agenda and the very worst just flat wrong.    

We still have more than 5,000 other definitions in Wex, all of which will be re-visited in the coming years, and most of which will be revised in the process. Meanwhile, we continue to explore better organizations and linkages within Wex to provide even deeper context for our readers. We’ll keep you posted along the way. 

Like the university that we call home, our fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.  While Cornell’s Fiscal 21 proved to be every bit as trying as we all thought they would be, we are pleased to report that the Legal Information Institute is stronger than ever. Though our small staff continues to work remotely, we made substantial progress on new initiatives while simultaneously meeting the demands of a global audience that has never been larger. 

Impacts

Traffic

Six months ago, the Cornell Chronicle wrote a lovely article about the LII and our website:  https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2021/01/institute-breaks-record-2020-making-laws-easy-access.  The article highlights how events such as the storming of the US Capitol, civil unrest after the killing of George Floyd, and COVID-19 drove LII’s extraordinary website traffic in 2020.  Those events and more translated to record traffic on law.cornell.edu in Fiscal 21. More than 40 million unique visitors came to the website over the last 12 months. They engaged in more than 68 million sessions and viewed more than 168 million pages of content–breaking the records we set in Fiscal 2020.   

From links in blog posts authored by the National Constitution Center, the American Bar Association, FactCheck.org and many others, to more than 15,000 readers who arrived from the website of CalFresh, California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, law.cornell.edu continued to be a go-to source for unbiased legal information. Educators at every level also continued to refer students to LII this year, via general information resources, library guides, and learning management systems. We were thrilled to be a part of the nationwide shift to online learning during the pandemic, with increased referrals from Canvas, Google Classroom, and K12 domains across the country.

Beyond the United States, LII served more than 6.9 million readers across the world in 242 countries and territories. Although the composition of the top countries by traffic is remarkably stable year over year, the rankings shifted a bit: this year, the Philippines and China more than doubled their traffic, rising to #3 (behind India) and #6 (behind Canada and the UK), respectively. Pakistan rocketed up to snag spot #14, and for the first time, we registered 3 users purporting to originate from North Korea.

Even as events from the news drive particular traffic spikes that can last from a few minutes to a few days, most of our users (representing a supermajority of our traffic) use our website in a professional capacity to do their work. Every year we hear not only from lawyers, librarians, bankers, and accountants, but also from droves of loyal users across the entire spectrum of business, government, and education. Even in a “quiet” month when major law and politics stories are absent from the daily headlines, somewhere between 2 and 3 million people use the service we provide as an alternative to expensive online databases.

I find the Legal Information Institute’s explanations invaluable in my work as a reporter having to cover numerous legal issues. “

Rachel H.

New Collections

  1.  State Regulations 

Our biggest accomplishment during Fiscal ‘21 was, without a doubt, the creation of a new online collection of the regulations of all 50 states. To create the collection, LII teamed with Public.Resource.Org, Fastcase, and Justia, Inc. to form the Code Improvement Commission. We then obtained the raw texts of the regulations from all 50 states, and our team of technologists set about creating and honing the tools needed to process, standardize, enrich, and publish those large and disparate corpora in a user-friendly and accessible format. This collection reflects an initial and ambitious first step to move “down the jurisdictional stack” away from the collections of federal law that have always been LII’s domain.

But simply publishing the regulations is not the end goal of the five-year project on which the Commission has embarked. Before the Commission disbands in 2025, LII plans to add more features to its collection to improve the findability and readability of state regulations, as well as to connect them to both other relevant governance and also information about the activities and objects being regulated. We will also allow bulk access to the formatted data for others to ingest, study, and improve. 

  1. Executive Orders

As website traffic died down after the presidential election and its aftermath and the inauguration approached, news outlets began to cover the anticipated flurry of executive orders. Because the publication process for new executive orders involves a delay of a few days before the formal publication in the Federal Register, we monitored the White House’s website for new orders; formatted, hyperlinked, and retrofitted them for web-accessibility-compliance; and published them when they were announced, making each new executive order far easier to locate, read, and contextualize for our readers.

I am a public health attorney. I love how easy it is to find and use federal statutes on your site and move from Section to Part to Subchapter to Title so that I can understand a section in context. There are many good resources for other laws – but yours is the only one that I use for federal statutes. Thanks!”

Denise C.

Collaborations

LII staff members continued to serve as a resource to the free access to law movement and legal technology projects. We continued to collaborate with a number of groups in government, non-profits, and industry, including the Federal Depository Library Program, AfricanLII, an e-regulations project for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid studies, as well as serving as a formal advisor to the National Science Foundation-funded project FAI: Using AI to Increase Fairness by Improving Access to Justice.  We also maintained representation on the editorial boards of two journals: the Journal of Open Access to Law, and Law in Context, which “publishes socio-legal articles that explore the social, historical, economic, political, and technological aspects of the operation of law”.

Student Work

  1. We’ve expanded our use of law students to explain the law to the public.

LII employed 109 students and recent graduates in Fiscal ’21 to revise and create new content for Wex and the Supreme Court Bulletin Previews. We also took a quantum leap forward in our ability to employ even more in Fiscal ‘22 and beyond.  In April, we added Nichole McCarthy to our staff as our first ever Original Content Collections Manager. In addition to managing our current cohort of student workers, Nichole is tasked with a pair of huge challenges:  

  1. To design and implement a better system of organization within Wex to help readers get to additional primary and secondary resources on our website and beyond that relate to the article they are viewing; and 
  2. To create new kinds of original content, as well as a viable structure for recruiting, training, and managing larger networks of pre-law undergraduates, law students, and volunteer experts from around the country (around the globe?) to populate and maintain those collections.

We are excited for the increased capacity this gives us to recruit more student labor than ever before!

2. Masters of Engineering Students Continue to Imagine Future Possibilities.

Every year, LII hosts students from Cornell’s engineering and information science programs. Two projects stand out from this year: an exploratory data analysis of state regulations and what we’ve been calling “the art project”. Our new state regulations publication is the largest document corpus we’ve ever worked with. Because this is the first time we’ve had access to standardized data at the state level, we have a great deal to discover by applying all of the techniques we’ve honed over the years to discover topics, citation networks, definitions, named entities, and other characteristics of the corpus that help readers find, contextualize, and understand the regulations. 

The “art project” was our most speculative project to date. We’re curious about the potential for using artificial intelligence technologies to generate multimedia resources that could make legal information less intimidating to civics students and other non-law-trained audiences. A talented M.Eng. student with a strong interest in art took up the challenge of applying artistic styles to photographs and animating the resulting images using the latest lip-syncing models. We look forward to extending this work in the future.  

Finances

Though a part of Cornell Law School, LII is entirely self-funded.  We not only “paid the bills” in Fiscal ‘21, we also added to our strategic reserve and completed fundraising for the Tom Bruce Legal Information Innovations Fellowship endowment.  We look forward to bringing the first Fellow to campus in Fiscal ‘22.  Of course, none of this would be possible without the support of friends like you.  We want to be sure to finish off our retelling of this remarkable year on a note of gratitude:  we would be irrelevant without real people using the information we publish to solve real problems, and we would be impossible without your generous financial support each year.  Thank you!

“I am retired and volunteer for a NPO, but I could not live without this valuable resource. Thank you.

Vicki P.

While the Thomson Reuters copyright suit against Ross is just getting started, the Supreme Court recently put an end to a long-running copyright dispute between Google and Oracle. Before the case was argued in the fall, Cornell Law students Thomas Shannon, Andrew Kingsbury, and Tyler Schmitt did an excellent job previewing the case for our Bulletin subscribers here: https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/18-956

You can listen to the oral argument and read a brief summary of the decision over at the Oyez Project here: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2020/18-956

And, of course, we have the entire opinion on our site at: https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/18-956

Will the Court’s latest pronouncement on fair use have any bearing on Westlaw’s claims against Ross? Only time will tell.

Closed sign

This is not an article about what is sure to be the most annoying part of the upcoming “Friends” reunion. It is, first and foremost, about ROSS AI.  

Back in October, I wrote about my experience using the legal research Chrome extension from ROSS AI. It was meant to be the first in a regular series of features about other Free Law tools available to you out in the world. And we’ll get back to that next time. Meanwhile, something has happened; and you need to hear about it.

ROSS went out of business. That’s the short version.

The longer version is that Thomson Reuters (TR), owners of Westlaw, had sued ROSS earlier in 2020. The complaint alleges, in short, that ROSS had obtained in bulk from a third party copyright-protected Westlaw content (such as headnotes, Key Numbers, and other organizational/editorial content added to the cases by Westlaw editors) and used that material in developing its AI-assisted platform.

Predictably, ROSS immediately issued a press release denying the allegations, stating that any copyright-eligible material from Westlaw it obtained through its third-party partner “would have been useless to ROSS.”       

The litigation proceeded apace. Briefing on a motion to dismiss was completed (but the motion not yet heard) by the time I wrote my review of the Chrome extension. (The court would subsequently deny the motion in an order dated March 29, 2021.)  

In December of 2020, ROSS announced that it would cease all operations by the end of January, 2021 and concentrate solely on fighting the TR lawsuit.  ROSS’s founder wrote, “With our company ensnared by this legal battle, we have been unable to raise another round of funding to fuel our development and marketing efforts.” 

Before we go any further, it’s important to say that I do not know whether or not the allegations in TRs complaint have merit or will be borne out by the evidence. Also, I understand just how common this is, and that many of the lawyers among our subscriber base have seen similar stories of young companies driven to extinction by the direct and indirect costs of defending themselves against allegations of intellectual property infringement or theft brought by very companies they are seeking to usurp. I’m also aware that some of us in the bar have worked for those large and well-resourced companies. And, at the risk of being redundant, I also understand that sometimes these allegations prove to be true and actionable.

In any event, ROSS subsequently filed an amended answer, including nine counterclaims attacking not only Westlaw’s claims of copyright, but also alleging antitrust violations. (Thomson Reuters has moved to dismiss the antitrust counterclaims.) In a concurrently-posted statement on its website, ROSS wrote:  

America is a country based on laws. The law belongs to all of us. It governs us, protects us, and forms the basis of our great democracy. Our highest ideal is justice for all. This depends on the people—all people—having access to the law. But for Westlaw, the public law is nothing but a commodity to be bought and purchased and a fiefdom to be protected at all costs. 

It’s quite a coincidence that the case I was researching when I first wrote about ROSS was the Supreme Court’s recent clarification of copyright law’s Government Edicts Doctrine, Georgia v. Public Resource.Org. Will that opinion have any impact on this case?  It could directly impact what the court ultimately determines to be the validity or the scope of the copyright TR claims.  

Beyond this particular litigation, the Georgia v. PRO case could indirectly impact the for-profit legal publishing industry by changing the perceived incentives for companies like TR to enter into contracts to be the original publishers of statutes, regulations, or case law.  

And Georgia v. PRO is not the Court’s most recent word on copyright. Earlier this month, it decided Google v. Oracle. In that case, the Court articulated what many believe to be an expanded understanding of the doctrine of Fair Use. Will ROSS be able to use that opinion to support the declaratory judgment it seeks that any alleged copying was fair use?  

There is much more to say about the intersection of the Government Edicts Doctrine, Fair Use, and publishing the law–whether for profit or not. As our team and others explore these topics, we’ll be sure to share the best parts with you.

Nichole McCarthy
Glass of lemonade and lemons

At this point last year, we had no idea what was going to happen. No one did.  But we knew our donors had treated us generously (thanks again!), and we were on pace to record a surplus when our fiscal year wrapped up at the end of June. We also knew that the dual threat of economic uncertainty and remote work meant that many law students were seeing their summer job plans shrink dramatically or disappear altogether.  We decided to offer summer employment to any Cornell student who approached us, and to advertise that offer aggressively within the (virtual) halls of Cornell Law School. This would be a classic “win-win” scenario, where more students would find meaningful, law-related summer employment, while we (and you!) would get more new original content than we are usually capable of producing. It seemed like a classic opportunity to, as the old saying goes, take the lemons we’d been handed and make some lemonade.  

We began feverishly planning an ambitious student project to make use of the extra labor. We wanted to refurbish as many of the short definitions in our Wex legal reference as possible.  

It all (somehow) came together, and since this time last year we have seen dozens of students on the Wex Definition Team research and draft more than 1,000 improved Wex definitions.  

As the dust settled on a busy summer and the stream of new and improved Wex entries slowed to a trickle as classes started in September, we were tired and proud. We also had a couple of new problems. First, we’d seen the results that vigorous student employment could yield, and we were hungry for more. Second, all that time we’d just spent in Wex identifying definitions to be improved upon and publishing those improvements left us keenly aware of the untapped potential of that collection.

So did what any small team of professionals would do when faced with such a challenge: we asked for help! We were able to raise sufficient funds to hire our first ever Original Content Collections Manager. Just a few weeks ago, we were able to welcome Nichole McCarthy to our team!

Nichole views access to information as a form of advocacy when it prepares individuals and groups to make informed decisions. She has demonstrated her passion for information services through more than 7 years of human services advocacy experience – serving both non-profit agencies and the State of New York. Trained as a librarian, she has worked in public, academic, and specialized libraries and previously supported the Law Library of Congress as a Metadata Intern. She has also worked as a librarian at a law firm and as a volunteer archivist for  KRIA: The Icelandic Constitution Archives, where she archived over 1,000 webpages. In addition to her M.S. in Library and Information Science, Nichole has a B.A. in Women’s Studies and a M.S. in Criminal Justice Administration.

Nichole’s first task is to train and manage the sizable cohort of students who will make up the Wex Definitions Team this summer.  

Longer term, Nichole is tasked with a pair of huge challenges:  

  1. To design and implement a better system of organization within Wex to help readers get to additional primary and secondary resources on our website and beyond that relate to the article they are viewing; and 
  2. To create new kinds of original content, as well as a viable structure for recruiting, training, and managing larger networks of pre-law undergraduates, law students, and volunteer experts from around the country (around the globe?) to populate and maintain those collections

Nichole’s arrival and mission is just one of the brands of lemonade we are making out of the big bushel of lemons that the pandemic has handed us. We’ll keep you posted as we refine our recipe!