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Ruth Bader Ginsburg
“From Brooklyn to the Bench: A Conversation,” part of the 2014 Ezra Cornell Circle Reception, with Arts and Sciences (CAS) Dean Gretchen Ritter and the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Cornell’s own Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an icon and a trailblazer in more ways than we can easily list here, passed away this September. There is, of course, no better way to celebrate the legacy of the late Justice than through her work on the Supreme Court. We’ve selected a few of our favorite readings from the past month:

You can find a full list of Opinions, Dissents and Concurrences by Ruth Bader Ginburg on our website if you’re looking for that deep dive. 

SCOTUSBlog featured a symposium on Justice Ginsburg’s jurisprudence.

Adam Liptak, long-time SCOTUS reporter for the New York Times, focuses on the role of dissent in her work.

Eduardo Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean of Cornell Law School, reflects on the life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue”.

Illinois law dean and professor Vikram David Amar considers one majority opinion and two dissents by the late Justice that he finds himself most drawn to for Verdict. 

Cornell University will pay permanent tribute to her through both a new program fund and a physical space.

I Voted sticker

On Thursday August 20, 2020 President Trump said he would send law enforcement officials to polling locations for the Nov. 3, 2020 general election.  But our traffic shows that 18 U.S.C. § 594, the federal statute outlawing voter intimidation, was already on people’s minds.  Beginning on August 13, we saw a brief increase in interest there.  A typical day would bring around 50 viewers to that section of the US Code.  On August 13, that number jumped to 338. While 10 visitors arrived there that day from a Washington Post article, as usual the vast majority (about three-quarters) came straight from search engines, 

Traffic there peaked on August 21—the day after President Trump’s statement—with 805 viewers reading 18 U.S.C. § 594.  By August 25, viewership was back in the double digits.  The graph from Google Analytics looks like this.

Google analytics traffic graph

We noted the spike in the #Trending channel of our internal Slack, and we made a note to  consider it for this newsletter article.  But what looked like a spike turned out to be just a bump in comparison of what was to come.

Saturday, September 19th marked the start of a triple spike, where the periods in between the peaks matched the traffic from what we had considered a spike back in August.  That day, 1898 people read 18 U.S.C. § 594.  The number went up to 2,685 the next day before beginning to drop back down to 1,415 on Monday–still higher than the peak of the August spike.

Just as traffic returned to a level that matched a “typical” day during the August spike (around 350 visits to the page), a second, even larger spike began.  That spike began on September 30, the day after the first presidential debate.  Over 4,000 people came to the page, probably because of President Trump’s heavily-reported “stand back and stand by” remark during the debate the night before.  While traffic dropped back down from that peak fairly quickly, it  remained at the same levels that constituted a “spike” when we observed it in August.  For example, Thursday October 8 was a relatively “quiet” day for the page in October, with only 446 visits.  But 446 would have been the second-highest daily total in August.   

We saw a third spike to the page corresponding with the confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett.  The hearings began on Monday, October 12th.  The next day, more than 2,000 people read 18 U.S.C. § 594.  That spike lasted all week. Over the weekend of October 18 & 19, more than 1,200 people visited the page, split roughly equally between Saturday and Sunday.  

Here is what all of that looks like, from the before the August bump through Sunday, October 18th:

As you can see from the graph, traffic to 18 U.S.C. § 594 last weekend almost matched what we thought was a spike back in August.  We don’t think we are done seeing interest in this page over the coming weeks. 

Student working on notes in library

Another new feature we’re trying in our Newsletter is a Student Spotlight, where we showcase the work of the many students in law, computer science, and information science who work with us each year.   For this first installment, we’re focusing on probably our best-known work with students, the Supreme Court Bulletin Previews.

Many of our readers (approaching 20,000) subscribe to the Previews, where teams of Cornell Law Students write comprehensive, plain language, viewpoint neutral summaries of the legal and policy arguments the Court will consider for each case it hears.  In case you don’t subscribe, or in case you missed this particular Preview, we wanted to highlight the case of Carney v. Adams, which was the very first case the Court heard at the start of its current term.  

As our Preview notes, the case presented a First Amendment issue impacting judges and political parties in the state of Delaware.  As always, our students did an excellent job untangling and explaining a complex case.

If you haven’t already, please check it out.

And if you don’t already, please consider subscribing to this completely free service we offer.

Notebook and laptop

Dear Reader:
Here’s a new feature in our newsletter where I share my experiences solving actual legal research questions using only online Free Law tools.   We hope this will give you some new insight into what other important and impressive free legal research tools are out there.  It might also perhaps even spark an idea or two about how to use them.  
Best,
Craig
Craig Newton
Co-Director

As you may have read in our Quarterly Report, I recently gave a presentation about the Supreme Court’s 2020 Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org decision.  In that case, the court held that Georgia could not claim copyright for commercially-produced annotations created under the legislature’s supervision and merged with the laws themselves to form the Official Code of Georgia Annotated.  

The central issue in the case was interpreting the Government Edicts Doctrine, a judicially created copyright exception from the 19th century.  Quoting Nash v. Lathrop, a case decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1886, Chief Justice Roberts explained “The animating principle behind this rule is that no one can own the law.  ‘Every citizen is presumed to know the law,’ and ‘it needs no argument to show . . . that all should have free access’ to its contents.”  

I was struck by the ages of all the case law that the court relied upon as it explained how “no one can own the law” that “we are all presumed to know and understand.”  As I prepared my talk, I wondered if there were more recent relevant cases the court had bypassed in its opinion  (and if so, why).  I knew from reading the decision below from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal (who also ruled in favor of PRO) that there were more recent cases out there denying copyright to similar materials; but, those cases relied not on the logic that citizens must be able to access the law they are presumed to know and instead were based on the notion that citizens in a democracy are the original authors of those laws.  

I wondered why the Supreme Court had found a completely different justification for upholding the 11th Circuit, and I decided to look for other cases that shared the same sentiment expressed in Massachusetts in 1886 (if not exactly those same words) that because every citizen is presumed to know the law, all should have free access to its contents.  

This seemed like a good opportunity to kick the tires on the ROSS Chrome extension, which I had learned about a few months before when the company asked us if they could use examples from our website in their video in the Chrome web store (and clicking on that link will show you that video).  

ROSS’s claims for its Chrome extension are ambitious:  add their extension to Chrome, highlight any text on any website, right click the text, select “Find similar language” from the resulting menu, and ROSS will generate a free list of cases that incorporate the same idea as the text you selected.  And ROSS allows users of the Chrome extension to click into the returned case results for free. 

Okay.  Neat.  Would it work?

Step One:  having downloaded the extension, all I needed to begin was an online version of the Georgia v. PRO opinion.  We have that!  

Step Two:  I found the language I was looking for: “The animating principle behind this rule is that no one can own the law.  ‘Every citizen is presumed to know the law,’ and ‘it needs no argument to show . . . that all should have free access’ to its contents.”  I selected that passage, right-clicked, and selected “Find Similar Language” from the resulting menu.  A new web page from ROSS opened up. 

Step Three:  The very first result was more than I bargained for!  ROSS showed me a new case from the Southern District of New York, decided just one month after Georgia v. PRO.  In International Code Council Inc. v. UpCodes Inc., Judge Marrero of the Southern District of New York denied summary judgment to both parties in a case where the defendant had re-published building codes created by a private standards organization but subsequently incorporated into the official building codes of various jurisdictions.  While ROSS let me read that order for free, having found it through their extension, you can find a Free Law copy here.  Judge Marrero cited the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in his analysis of both whether the private building codes had entered the public domain and if their use by the re-publisher was covered by the copyright doctrine of fair use.  

Though cases like this are one of the next battlegrounds for the Free Law community, I had not been aware of this one.  Score one for ROSS!  

A side note:  I understand that I could have discovered the ICC v. UpCodes case just as easily using a commercial citator like those available through Westlaw or LexisNexis.  The key word there, of course, being “commercial” while the ROSS Chrome extension is completely free.  I would even argue that, FREE NOTWITHSTANDING, the ROSS experience was more useful to me because (1) it only showed me cases that were linked to the Georgia v. PRO in the way that mattered to me (instead of returning a list of everything that cited it and leaving me to find the relevant ones) and (2) one search simultaneously showed me both newer and older cases that expressed a similar sentiment (while a citator, of course, only returns cases that cite and therefore must post-date, the original case in question).  Remember, I started this exercise looking for older cases that Chief Justice Roberts could have cited but did not.

Step Four:  Speaking of older cases SCOTUS did not cite, ROSS also returned a 1980 building codes case called Building Officials & Code Adm. Intern. Inc. v. Code Technology Inc.  You can find a FreeLaw copy of that decision here.  In that case, the First Circuit Court of Appeal vacated at trial court’s injunction that prevented a defendant from re-publishing the Massachusetts building codes, which was largely based on a model code created and owned by the plaintiff.  This was exactly the sort of case that Chief Justice Roberts could have cited but didn’t.  (Why is a question for another day, especially where the 11th Circuit opinion cites and discusses it at some length.)  Score (another) one for ROSS!

Conclusion

I was able to complete my research using entirely Free Law tools–most notably this time the ROSS Chrome extension.  Of course, ROSS would like users of its free Chrome Extension to become so enamored with the results that they subscribe to ROSS’s entire suite of AI-powered legal research tools.  This “Freemium” model, where a for-profit company offers a free product or a free, basic version of its product to attract and entice users who it hopes to eventually convert into paying customers, is neither new nor nefarious.  In the case of ROSS, it’s a great way to begin legal research for a topic that catches your eye from an online news story, blog post, or even a judicial opinion.   

Post-Script

Just for fun, I subsequently used the ROSS Chrome extension to find cases that supported a post on a lawyer’s website without benefit of citation.  Turns out, that’s also a great use for this tool, since it pointed me to a Federal Circuit case that confirmed exactly what he said.  Maybe we’ll do “lawyer blogs” as the next installment in this series!  

Despite all that’s happening, we at the Legal Information Institute continue to be in the fortunate position of finding new opportunities among the chaos.  In September we set new single-month records for users (4.148M), sessions (6.035M), and pageviews (14.827M).  Our traffic continues to track the news, with spikes to Article III of the Constitution after the death of Justice Ginsburg, the Wex page on No-Knock Warrants around the Jefferson County grand jury announcements regarding the shooting of Breonna Taylor, and, since the first presidential debate, 18 U.S.C. § 594, Intimidation of Voters.  All of this occurs alongside the regular and steady flow of traffic from folks who come to our website to do their jobs, further their education, or just live their lives.

Since our last newsletter in July, our collaboration to publish a feature-rich collection of the regulations of all 50 states has gained momentum.  The engineering team has been working its magic adapting the federal regulations pipeline to handle state regulations, while brushing up on the latest data standards for bulk publication.   Sylvia has extended our language parsers to address the new XML format.  Jim identified and remediated major web accessibility roadblocks (we’ve once again been working in parallel with our friends at Public.Resource.Org and their contractors to transform non-web-accessible images from the regulations into machine-readable formats).  Ayham incorporated new point-in-time support into the data model to support comparisons between quarterly snapshots, and Nic has kept all of the trains running by streamlining the process of re-generating content from cached data – a much-needed new feature now that we’re working with a corpus an order of magnitude larger than those we’ve published in the past.   

A battalion of summer students finished up work on the Wex Definitions project, though a small team remains employed and working on a much more part-time basis.  Our Women & Justice collection continues to grow, thanks mostly to the work of a dozen students over the summer.  Our newest use of law students, though, is performing research intended to nail down with precision the number of times each of the Supreme Court’s most prolific advocates appeared before that court.  We’ll be publishing the results as a feature on the Oyez website.  

Neli, Sara and Craig each gave presentations at the virtual Law Via the Internet Conference in late September.  The LVI conference is a (mostly) annual event where members of the global Free Access to Law Movement (FALM) come together to share expertise and best practices, often joined by a mixed bag of legal academics, law librarians, scattered legal tech industry-types, and even the occasional curious practitioner.  Neli Karabelova presented on a panel alongside her opposite number at South Africa LII and a staffer from a Canadian organization assisting self-represented litigants, discussing how to communicate user impacts.  Sara teamed up with Cornell Law Librarian Kim Nayyer on two panel presentations: the first, with Canada LII’s Sarah Sutherland on the role of Legal Information Institutes in mitigating bias in legal datasets; and the second, with Ivan Mokanov of Lexum (CanLII’s for-profit software development subsidiary), inviting the gathered FALM membership to consider its potential role in open legal scholarship. Craig presented an overview of the Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org case for the international conference audience.    

So that, briefly, is what we’ve been up to. The rest of this newsletter contains a combination of familiar items (such as the popular “Anatomy of a Traffic Spike”) as well as some new ones.  In that latter category are a “Spotlight on Student Work” (namely, an LII Bulletin Preview) and a worked example of using free legal resources to solve an actual research question, which we’re unimaginatively calling “Free Legal Research in Action.”  We hope you enjoy all that, as well as a summary of some of the coverage on the life and passing of Cornell almuna Ruth Bader Ginsburg in our “Footnotes” section.

Stay safe and well.

Portrait of Frank Wagner
Frank Wagner. Credit: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

At the conclusion of each Supreme Court term, the LII presents the Frank Wagner Prize to honor the best Bulletin Previews from the year.  The prize is funded by an LII donor to honor Frank Wagner, the former Reporter of Decisions of the Supreme Court, Cornell alumnus, and long-time friend of the LII. 

The runners up will split a total prize of $250, with $100 going to each Associate and $50 to the Managing Editor.

The winners will split a total prize of $500, with $200 going to each Associate and $100 to the Managing Editor.

The five finalists from the recently concluded term were:

The winners are:

  Runner-up: 

Authored by:  Lachanda Reid & Gabriela Markolovic

Edited by:  Cecilia Bruni

Grand Prize:

Authored by: Philip Duggan & Connor Grant-Knight

Edited by:  Matt Farnum

Congratulations to the winners!

Zoom gallery with 8 people

Those of you who have supported us for a while probably know that we, like Cornell University, operate on a fiscal year that runs from July through June. Creating and sharing an Annual Report for the recently-completed fiscal year each summer is one of our oldest traditions. Though this has been a year like no other, that tradition continues. 

As we suspect is the case for most of you, the global COVID-19 pandemic affected LII in ways large and small. We’re fortunate to be able to carry out our mission via remote work, to have a large and ever-growing audience that needs our service, and a large and dedicated group of supporters like you who motivate us in good times and bad.  

What follows is our Annual Report for Supporters. We hope it tells you where we are and where we are headed.    

Group of people working on laptops

Traffic

According to Google Analytics, close to 35.5 million unique visitors came to the LII website in Fiscal 20. They engaged in 61.75 million sessions and viewed almost 157 million pages of content–all of which are new records.    In all, visitors spent more than 759.5 BILLION minutes at law.cornell.edu in the past twelve months. That translates to well over 126 million hours, 5.25 million days, or more than 53.5 thousand years that people from around the globe spent on law.cornell.edu in just the last 12 months to access, learn about, and understand the law.  

World events once again drove information seekers to learn about the law at LII. During the impeachment (remember that?), readers came to LII to read our original content and the US Constitution Annotated on impeachment, bribery, separation of powers, and Article II of the Constitution. They read 52 U.S.C. § 30121 – Contributions and donations by foreign nationals; 18 U.S.C. § 1505 – Obstruction of proceedings before departments, agencies, and committees; 50 U.S.C § 3033 – Inspector General of the Intelligence Community [regarding whistleblower complaints]; and 18 U.S.C. § 2381 – Treason. They returned to a frequently perused topic, the Second Amendment, and, disturbingly, our Wex article on the law of cannibalism. Following a dramatic flourish by Speaker Pelosi at the State of the Union Address, traffic to 18 U.S.C. § 2071 spiked to the tune of 300,000 extra page views as readers sought clarity on the claim that tearing up a copy of the President’s speech constituted mutilation of government documents.

COVID-19-driven traffic sent new referrals to the website, particularly from the Small Business Administration, the Veterans’ Administration, state government resources on unemployment, and the Centers for Disease Control. Trending pages included the Wex article on force majeure; 20 CFR Part 625 – Disaster Unemployment Insurance; 13 CFR part 121 – [Small Business] Size eligibility provisions and standards; and 18 U.S.C. §1001, which includes penalties for lying to obtain unemployment benefits.  As lockdowns took effect, we witnessed what we’ve come to describe as the “DC inversion”: although DC metro area year-over-year session numbers were stable for the period from March 15 through June 15, the number of sessions originating from inside the District of Columbia dropped by 81%, while the number of sessions originating from Silver Spring, MD grew by 272%, and from Arlington, VA, by 157%.  Unlike during federal government shutdowns, we saw similar inversions from city to suburban traffic throughout the country.

“When I’m writing for SCOTUSBlog or any other paper, and need to embed citations, cases, or other authorities, LII is always the first source. Thank you!”

Rory Little
Professor of Law
UC Hastings

Starting in late May, antiracism demonstrations drove considerable numbers of new referrals as well. Trending pages included original content on qualified immunity, no-knock warrants, and the definition of “reasonable”; US Constitution Annotated articles on martial law, the Third Amendment, and the civilian Commander-in-Chief; and primary sources such as 4 U.S.C. § 8 – Respect for flag; 18 U.S.C. § 242 – Deprivation of rights under color of law, and 18 U.S.C. § 1369 – Destruction of veterans’ memorials. Also, as is expected from the June blockbuster season, the U.S. Supreme Court once again drove numerous referrals to LII, particularly for precedents underlying high-profile cases such as June Medical Services L.L.C. v. Russo and Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (news sources tend to prefer PDF from the Court’s own website for the new opinions themselves). 

Overall, LII received significant numbers of referrals from news sources such as the New York Times, CNN, and Fox News. Federal government entities such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission all linked to LII. Educational and civic content sources such as Govtrack, iCivics, Google Classroom, and Nolo, as well as more than 3500 educational domains referred readers to LII this year, with incoming links from general information resources, library guides and learning management systems. 

Disability sign saying step free route

Projects and Activities

Both before and since COVID-19 changed our daily routines, LII made great headway in its mission of providing free legal information to the public. Most notably, we concluded a comprehensive sitewide web accessibility remediation project, conforming all LII resources to the WCAG 2.0 Level AA standard. The project was highly collaborative: Public.Resource.Org donated machine-readable images; students developed descriptive text; LII content creators and editors updated authoring standards, and LII engineers applied a wide range of artificial intelligence techniques to enhance non-conforming government source data.  LII’s publications of US Supreme Court opinions, the Federal Rules, the US Code, and the CFR now all offer significant accessibility augmentations beyond the government’s feature set. 

If the pandemic had a silver lining, it was the availability of many more law students for summer employment than usual as other summer employment evaporated and many were left suddenly looking for summer work as the spring semester ended. With this large talent pool at our disposal since late May, we’re well on our way to improving upon thousands of dictionary-like definitions in our WEX legal reference. Each revised definition is longer, more complete, and better linked to other free resources (on our website and others) than its predecessor. 

We also have more students than ever working on a variety of tasks for the Women & Justice Collection. While COVID-19 interrupted plans to send students to Cape Town this summer to work with our partners there, our students have continued to contribute to our growing database of human rights-related cases and summaries.  

As always, we pay our students by the hour for their expertise and effort.  Donations from our supporters make all of this possible, and we hope you notice and appreciate the improved original content that results.  

“I’m a policy researcher who relies on you as a source of federal and state statutes and court decisions. Thanks!”

Garen J. Wintemute, MD, MPH
Professor of Emergency Medicine
University of California, Davis

But, even before COVID-19 changed the labor pool considerably, we mentored an  unprecedented number of teams of students from computer science and information science working for course credit as part of their curriculum’s practical experience requirement. This year, M.Eng. students worked on four separate projects. The first used new measures of similarity to connect descriptions of federal agencies published by the government to additional information compiled by Wikidata. Applying scaling techniques to such similarity measures, another M.Eng. project helped surface unique comments from among millions of machine-generated fakes in notice-and-comment rulemaking proceedings. In the spring, that project’s team recruited two new members to explore the use of natural language processing techniques to automate substance-preserving legal-content simplification tasks described by the federal judiciary in their Guidelines for Drafting and Editing Court Rules. Finally, a Computer Science 5150 Software Engineering Practicum team revamped the U.S. Constitution Annotated processing software to use the new data source that the federal government made available in the fall, thus enabling us to extend the feature set of the Congressional Research Service’s popular commentary.    

Finances

Even without our typical June fundraiser (did you miss us in your inbox?) our financial performance was strong despite tough times. Once again, we  finished our fiscal year with more resources than expenditures. Though Cornell gives us meaningful material assistance such as access to students, HR/payroll support, and office space (remember when people went to offices to work?), the University does NOT give us any money. Our advertising revenue, corporate partners, and philanthropy from individual supporters like you fund 100% of everything we do.  We couldn’t do it without our supporters, and we try to never miss an opportunity to say THANK YOU!  

US Map outline

What’s Next?

We’ve now secured outside funding for our next big project, a 50-state regulations service. For years, we’ve been thinking about how to extend our “what is the law of where I’m standing right now?” approach beyond individually-researched original content features and manually curated prototypes—a challenge whose relevance became all the more stark as state governments took the spotlight in the wake of COVID-19. Now, for the first time, we’ll be able to make use of standardized raw data to publish state regulations and, more usefully, help readers know when and how regulations are changing over time, find state regulations from the federal regulations they cite, and understand how real-world topics are addressed at the state and federal level.

We’ve also been energized in the midst of this chaos by what we can accomplish when we’re able to involve more students in our work. We’ve already begun examining things large and small we can do to build on our current momentum in that arena. We hope you will see that reflected in next year’s Annual Report.  

“I strongly believe that the public should have free access to the laws that govern all of our lives. LII has been a great resource to me as an undergrad student, a law student, and as a lawyer.”

Bethany Gross
Attorney

Open Laptop with facemask

Rather than focusing on a single incident that spiked traffic to a particular page of our website, we thought we would instead share a slightly broader view of what legal topics are particularly on people’s mind as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For pages with more than 10,000 views since April 1st, these are the parts of the law where viewership has more than doubled over the same period last year:

The Constitution: Always one of our busiest pages, the First Amendment is seeing about 125% as much traffic as it did this time last year. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment is up just under 200%, and the Tenth Amendment shows an increase in viewership of 821%. The Constitution Annotated (CONAN) entry for the Tenth Amendment is up 2705%. Other popular parts of CONAN this month are “The Right to Travel” in section one of the Fourteenth Amendment, which is up 1168%, and also “Martial Law and Constitutional Limitations” in section two of Article Two, which is up 5276%. Our Wex entry on executive power was up 214%, and the entry on the Fifth Amendment was up 113%. (The Fifth Amendment itself, while the 15th most popular page on the website in April, was only viewed about a third more often than usual.)  

The Supreme Court:  A Supreme Court case from 1905 was viewed 4,316% more times in April of 2020 than in April of 2019. In Henning Jacobsen v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Supreme Court upheld a mandatory vaccination law against a challenge under the Fourteenth Amendment. Of the more than 13,000 views of this page in April, 4653 of them arrived from this CNN article. About as many, 4,500, came from a link in an email.  Perhaps teachers were asking students to read and think about the arguments for and against mandatory vaccinations? (We like when that happens!) 

The U.S. Code: Surprisingly, only one section of the U.S. Code met the criteria for inclusion in this article. That section, 15 USC 632, establishes the legal definition of a “small business” under federal law. Viewership was up almost 7,000%.  

The Code of Federal Regulations: Regulations governing small businesses were also heavily trafficked. In 13 CFR, for example, the section addressing eligibility for loans from the Small Business Administration was viewed almost 33,000 times in April, a leap of more than 38,000% from this time last year.  Another section addressing small business loans saw almost 30,000 viewers, an increase of 28,391%.  Other related parts of those regulations saw jumps of 18,000%, 3,628%, 2500%, and 2250% as well.  Sadly, the most viewed page in the entire CFR in April dealt with federal unemployment insurance. That section, 20 CFR 625.6, was viewed only 27 times in April of 2019, but has been viewed almost 85,000 times this April.  That’s an increase of more than 300,000%.  

That’s a very somber note to end on. All we can say is that we will continue to pay attention to the needs of our users and try to build features and resources to help them run their businesses and live their lives in good times and bad.

We appreciate what you do to help us help them.

10_students_zoom_meeting

In January, we started work with a Cornell Computing and Information Science team on a project we called “Save the Constitution Again.” 

The project has a long history, beginning in the mid-2000s, when LII first published a web version of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) U.S.  Constitution Annotated (“CONAN”). CONAN provides legal analysis and interpretation of the Constitution, focusing on Supreme Court jurisprudence and is a very highly regarded source of information about the fundamentals of the American system of government. Like LII, CONAN is prized for its objectivity. Two years ago (after more than a decade of waiting for the government to publish its XML source data once the plain-text publication was discontinued), a CS 5150 Software Engineering Practicum team helped LII “Save the Constitution” by working on a conversion from what was then the only available published format: PDF.  It was a great success, garnering more than 900,000 visitors in its first year and 1.5 million in calendar year 2019. But in September of 2019, the government published its own CONAN website, effectively orphaning our data source for the second time.  

We returned to CS 5150, proposing a project that would build upon the last one. Having made CONAN more accessible, we now wanted to focus on making its content easier to find and understand. The large project team split into small groups, each specializing in an aspect of the challenge. One group focused on splitting the source text into component parts. A second extracted information about the relationship between the Constitution and the Supreme Court decisions that interpret it. A third explored techniques for summarization. You already know what happened next: along with much of the rest of the world, the University shut down.

So we started meeting by teleconference and re-envisioned the scope of the project. The students weathered shelter-in-place, travel home, quarantine, and a 12-hour timezone range to continue their work. In the next few weeks, they’ll be wrapping up handover details and presenting their results – we look forward to getting their work in front of the public.

Supreme court building

On April 27, the Supreme Court handed a significant win to advocates for Free Law by holding that the “government edicts doctrine” forbade legislatures from claiming copyright in any materials they produce in the course of their official duties, whether or not the materials in question carry “the force of law.” Writing for a 5-4 majority, Chief Justice Roberts explained, “The animating principle behind this rule is that no one can own the law. Every citizen is presumed to know the law, and it needs no argument to show that all should have free access to its contents.” (internal quotation and punctuation omitted). 

Now, where have you heard that before? Maybe here? How about here? Or, perhaps, here?  

So, that’s the “Good Thing.” Now, what about this “Odd Thing” we mentioned in the headline? In case you missed it, the Court postponed its March and April calendars several weeks ago. Then it announced it would hear oral arguments in about half of those cases in May via telephonic hearing. (The other half, it seems, will wait until the new term begins this Fall.) C-SPAN will have access to the live audio feed and has promised public access.  

If we hear more, we’ll let you know.