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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.

Covid19 virus microscope picture

In case you missed it on social media, please take a minute to look at the resources we’ve aggregated from around the Web to help people answer their legal questions arising out of COVID-19. The url is: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/covid-19_resources 

As you’ll see, none of the resources we link to there are of our own creation. Much larger groups than ours – most notably our friends at Justia and Fastcase – are diverting the labor of their content-creating teams to providing this public service, and we wanted to both acknowledge that effort and also maximize the visibility of the results.

Dear Friends of the LII,

We wanted to let everyone know that we are weathering COVID-19, and all that comes with it, just fine for now. Most importantly, our small staff and their loved ones at home all remain virus free. We hope that everyone in our audience can say the same. 

Important for our mission, the LII remains financially healthy as well.  Because of your generosity during our year-end campaign (and throughout the year, really) along with our income derived from both advertising on the website and also corporate partners, we are certain to meet our funding goals through the end of our fiscal year in June. As has been the case for the last few years, we will cost Cornell University nothing more than the five offices we occupy within the Law School (and, of course, at the moment we aren’t even using those!).  

Meanwhile, you may have heard about a “Giving Tuesday Now” initiative set for May 5, 2020.  (Giving Tuesday is usually the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving.) A lot of very worthy causes are seeing costs going up, work becoming more difficult (while also more necessary), and financial support decreasing. It’s a nightmare scenario for many sectors of the nonprofit world.  

But, we’re okay. The website is running. Research and feature development in the US Code, CFR and Constitution Annotated continue, as does original content creation with the Supreme Court Bulletin Previews and Wex.  

So we won’t be soliciting donations on Giving Tuesday Now, and we are foregoing our usual June fundraising campaign in deference to other causes that are in dire straits. If you usually support us this time of year, we hope you will consider focusing your generosity on a food pantry, a local library, a shuttered playhouse or symphony orchestra, or any of the thousands upon thousands of worthy causes out there.

We will fire up our fundraising machinery again in November for our year-end campaign. Until then, we’ll send you the occasional newsletter update (like this one) telling you what we are doing and highlighting some of the interesting things and people we encounter in our work. So, please keep in touch.  

All the best,

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

The Supreme Court recently announced all oral arguments scheduled between March 23rd and April 1st will be postponed in light of public health concerns. While remote work options are expanding, the Court will remain open and filing deadlines will not be extended. You can read the announcement in full for more details. We will hold off on distributing Previews during this time; but, as new dates are set for the postponed arguments, we will resume the release of the corresponding Previews. We are committed to being flexible and adapting the LII’s Bulletin services with changes to the Court’s schedule. 

While we certainly don’t have any “inside information,” we expect that the Court will continue to issue opinions deciding cases it has already heard. Though we have transitioned to working remotely for the time being, we’ll get the opinions published on our site and Bulletins sent to all of you in short order, as always.  

If you are used to keeping up with the Supreme Court term on our website, and would like to have Previews and Decisions delivered straight to your inbox, you can subscribe to our Supreme Court Bulletin.

We hope that by continuing to maintain reliable access to legal information the LII can assist you during times of uncertainty like these. We watch with curiosity during snow storms or government shutdowns as our usage patterns change, and we’ll be checking the log files and analytics data to see if folks are using our website differently as remote work becomes increasingly prevalent. Beyond a mere curiosity, observing changing patterns and learning from them tells us about who our users are and what they need from us. Meanwhile, our thoughts are with those who are impacted by current events, and we wish good health and good luck to you and your families, friends and communities. 

The LII Team

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