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

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

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

Google analytics screenshot of traffic spike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all seems to have started on Twitter:

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

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

Google Analytics live view: right now: 1298 visitors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you aren’t already familiar with the Bulletin, please have a look here, and we invite you to sign up here to receive this free service via email.  

LII_team

LII spent the past year rebuilding and preparing for a big transition, but as far as our audience was concerned, we like to think we didn’t miss a beat – and maybe learned a new trick or two. 

During the past year, we replenished our core staff, added a communications specialist, and passed the leadership baton. Jim Phillips is now our new front-end developer; Ayham Boucher, our back-end developer, and Julie Pizzuti, our fundraiser. Neli Karabelova has spearheaded our outreach, spreading the word about the resources we offer, gathering impact stories that help us improve, and keeping us connected to the ever-growing Free Law community. And the biggest change, in case you missed it: in the wake of our co-founder and Director Tom Bruce’s retirement at the end of June, Craig Newton and Sara Frug, the LII’s two Associate Directors since 2013, now lead the LII as Co-Directors. 

Some highlights from the past year: 

Last fall, we celebrated Constitution Day by publishing a new version of the Congressional Research Service’s (CRS) U.S Constitution Annotated. Unlike the PDF published by CRS, our version is easily searchable, browsable, hyperlinked, and accessible to visually impaired users. The launch was picked up by RollCall, SCOTUSBlog, the American Association of Law Librarians, and others, and the collection has been used over a million times since then. 

During the past year, our law students wrote over 70 previews of U.S. Supreme Court cases, which they published on our website and in the Federal Lawyer magazine. They updated our legal reference Wex, supported our accessibility initiative and our work at oyez.org, and, under the leadership of  Editor-in-Chief Jocelyn Hackett, helped expand our Women & Justice collection. 

LII staff participated in and spoke at a variety of conferences this year, including the Law Via the Internet Conference; the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) annual conference; the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and the Law; and the New York State Civil Legal Aid Tech Conference. 

We embarked on an overhaul of the more than 600,000 pages of the LII website in order to meet modern web accessibility standards. As we go through each collection, we’ve been adding machine-readable information to help external search engines find our content and streamlining our own search results to make them easier to use. 

All of this work has helped us reach a constantly-evolving audience of people and machines. On March 7, 2019, the Legal Information Institute became a truly global source of information when our first visitor from Antarctica came to www.law.cornell.edu.  That reader joined over 30 million other people from all around the world who came to our website more than 53 million times in the last year, as well as another 7.5 million unique visitors making over 15 million visits on our other website, www.oyez.org.  The two websites have appeared in over 1.16 billion search results in the last 12 months. 

We saw traffic from 3207 universities, 274 community colleges, and 811 school districts, as well as 1669 hospitals and 2967 banks.  We had visitors from the Berklee College of Music and the Berkeley National Laboratory as well both the Environmental Protection Agency and the William Morris Agency.  Tens of thousands of user sessions originated within the internal networks of the United States Senate, House of Representatives, and Supreme Court. The Administrative Office of the US Courts alone was responsible for more than 90,000 sessions.  Within the executive branch, the VA, DOD, and DOJ were our three largest customers.   

The Washington Post was among the top sources of referral traffic to the LII site this year, along with Wikipedia and every major social media platform.  A little further down that list we find Google Classroom, GovTrack, uscourts.gov, the ABA, CNN, MSN, NPR, the Atlantic, SCOTUSBlog, Slate, Politifact, the National Review, NBC News, the Library of Congress, the New York Times, Fox News, and Forbes. 

On a more individual level, an awful lot of people sent us notes. A few of our favorites: 

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

“I’m a state lawyer. I use Cornell’s website almost daily.”

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

“I rely on original sources rather than someone else’s interpretation of them. LII gives me access to much of what I need to know.” or “I love this site because it’s the only one, on the first page of Google results, that doesn’t include someone’s opinion. It is the law as written, officially.”

“When citizens have access to clear information, they can make better choices and the nation benefits. Knowledge is empowering. Thanks for what you do.” 

And last, but not least: in the past year, your donations made it possible for all of this to happen while we continued to operate within our budget. Beyond that, in honor of Tom Bruce’s retirement, we were able to raise an additional $130,000 to establish the Tom Bruce Legal Innovation Fellowship Fund, which will provide an annual fellowship (usually during the summer months). The Fellow will explore new technologies and techniques of potential application within legal informatics, computer science, or legal tech, helping us continue to innovate while maintaining our ever-expanding collection of information resources. We would not have been able to do any of this without your support. Thank you! 

We’ve been heartened by the overwhelming response to Tom Bruce’s May letter. We’ve heard from students and teachers, from regulators and compliance professionals, from new grads and retirees, from civil servants and activists. Some have been using the site for decades, others have just discovered us via a link or a search engine. We are grateful for the vote of confidence this feedback represents, and heartened by the number of people who have stepped forward to help us help others find and understand the law.

DONATE NOW

Your support makes it possible for us to continue to reach the millions of people who rely on the LII website to provide the objective, non-partisan information they need to make sense of what is going on in the world around them. Our readers tell us they want to read and understand the law for themselves, and we continue to work in a variety of ways to make this ever more possible.

Tom_Bruce_Sara_Frug_9_students_team

This spring, we recruited a team of eight talented engineering students to develop new ways of analyzing and presenting how real people use the LII website. The team’s work, part of an engineering practicum course, came to us as part of a long-standing relationship with Cornell Computing and Information Sciences. The resulting software has given us new insights about the relationship between current events and the public’s exploration of legal information.

We’ve also extended new search functionality across our most heavily used collections. We’ve added machine-readable data to our web pages to help people better find the resources we offer when they start with an outside search engine. Most importantly, we have set out to ensure, by the end of the calendar year, that the content on LII fully conforms to the accessibility standards that have been adopted in the U.S., Europe, and beyond.

We are grateful for your help in bringing legal information for free to an ever-expanding world of curious participants in civic life.

Thank you.
Sara

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Friends:

Twice each year — once in December, and once as the Supreme Court term draws near its end — we ask you to contribute to the LII. We are deeply grateful to you for every donation, not only because you donated, but because your contributions are a vote of confidence in us and in our mission of helping others find and understand the law.

DONATE NOW

Last year, you helped 31 million people from 240 countries to view 150 million pages of legal information. The vast majority come from the United States; we estimate that the LII reaches around 10-13% of the adult population here. Many who visit us come here because of personal crisis or business need, but in recent years it has become clear that the site plays an important role in educating people about current events. Your contributions provide an important source of objective, non-partisan information for citizens who have questions about our system of government and how it works. People from all points on the political spectrum have thanked us for our objectivity and accuracy. We take a great deal of pride in that, and we certainly hope that you do too.

I’m pretty sure that this will be the last time I ask you for a donation. As many of you know, I’ll be retiring at the end of June. Over the past 27 years I’ve had the privilege of getting to know some of you, far fewer than I would have liked. I think it’s safe to say that the LII has one of the most interesting and diverse groups of donors on the planet. Among you there are a President of the World Bank and a manager of a Michigan food bank, judges in Federal courts and traffic courts, a woman who teaches in Alaska, and a guy who makes prototype machine parts up in Rochester, NY, among thousands and thousands of others. I’m only sorry that I haven’t met more of you in person. You’re a fascinating and dedicated group, and it has been a pleasure to turn your contributions into action.

As for the future of the LII, I could not be more confident. My successors, Sara Frug and Craig Newton, are smart, capable, and creative. We’ve had time to plan the transition and it has gone extremely well, except for one thing. My successors refuse to believe that I can use a sports metaphor effectively.

So…. it’s my last time at bat as a fundraiser. Will you help me hit it out of the park?

My best regards — and deepest gratitude — to you all.

T.

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As Tom announces his retirement, there will be lots of looking back at a long and spectacularly successful career.   But lest you think we’re resting on our laurels, I wanted to take a minute to update you on the original content we’ll be adding in the coming months.  This summer, we’ll continue our recent program of using Cornell law students to review and improve articles in our Wex legal reference, an effort that has seen more than 250 articles revised, updated or simply verified as accurate and current.  

As we mentioned in our last newsletter, we eagerly await beginning a partnership with our African LII counterparts and the Democratic Governance & Rights Unit at the University of Cape Town.  Goals include collaboration on training programs for judges from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), remote clerking for judges throughout the SADC, and building a database of pan-African human rights caselaw.

Also in the last newsletter, we introduced you to the new leadership for our student-run LII Bulletin Previews.  Kathryn and Angela have selected their new roster of associates for the 2019 – 2020 Supreme Court term and will spend the summer reviewing and revising the group’s procedures and style guide.  Meanwhile, April arguments (and April Previews) still await.

So even as we pause briefly to admire Tom and our collective past, we never really stop here at the LII.

Craig Newton
Associate Director