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Stop feeling so guilty, willya?

guiltypuppySkilled fundraisers that we are (not), we have a variety of ways that we try to find out what motivates you to make a contribution to the LII. The number one leading answer is, “I felt guilty because I’ve been using the service and I thought it was time to give you something.” Believe me, we’re not above using guilt as a motivator (most of us are raising children, and all of us have mothers), and if you want to make another gift right now, be our guest. But if you’ve donated recently, stop for a minute and think about what you’ve done:  donations to the LII do a lot for a lot of people, and all of you who have contributed should feel really, really proud.

First of all, you’re helping around 20 people for each dollar that you give us — making it possible for them to read and understand the laws that affect them. That’s no small thing.

But then there’s the FDA inspector who tells us that our CFR is more up to date than the version that the FDA puts up for its staff. Or the Vietnamese civil servant who uses us as her only American law reference. Or the reporter who used our materials to check the truthfulness of a controversial sheriff in Arizona. And the blind law student who wrote to us this month and told us that we’re the only site that works effortlessly with his screen-reading software.

You guys make all that possible. We’re grateful. And so are all those other people you’ve helped.

Ithaca brings us the world

ithacaAs an institute within the Cornell Law School, the LII team is surrounded by students and faculty who are immersed in the study of law; as a part of Cornell University, we have access to some of the greatest minds in the study of just about everything else.

Perhaps best of all is the vibrant community of Ithaca, New York, which houses Cornell, as well as Ithaca College, and is home to thousands of young people looking to make a difference. These factors provide us with opportunities to leverage this knowledge and enthusiasm into research that directly impacts our mission, and we take advantage of this in several ways.

For example, we’re fortunate to host visiting scholars from other institutions who do work in information science, open access, and legal information. This summer we welcomed Jonathan Germann from the Law Librarianship program at the University of Washington, who worked on various things related to ALJ opinions and the CFR. Stevan Gostojic joined us from the University of Novi Sad (in Serbia). He worked on a Semantic Web ontology/project related to statutes and bylaws. In a few weeks, we’ll be joined by Juhani Korja from the University of Lapland, who is working on research having to do with privacy law as it applies to biometric data (think facial recognition, fingerprints, DNA, etc.).

During the academic year, we mentor and lead workshops for students from the Cornell University Departments of Computer and Information Science. Each semester, several Masters of Engineering students take an independent study course directed by our semantic web researcher and developer, Mohammad AL Asswad. Last year’s project led to an award from Google. LII associate director Sara Frug leads another group of students in a software development practicum. And the LII also offers undergraduate work study jobs in system administration and software development.

Our administrative team employs several students from Cornell Law School’s LLM program to help with basic data entry and other marketing and fundraising tasks and research. Some of these students also assist LII associate director Craig Newton in content development, specifically in translating Wex pages into their native languages.

And of course, there’s the LII Supreme Court Bulletin, which provides thirty Cornell Law School students with the opportunity to hone their writing and research skills by providing written previews of upcoming Supreme Court cases for 30,000 subscribers.

New this year, we launched a full-summer internship in non-profit communications and management with help from the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. Senior Tom Dempsey worked on advertising, fundraising, and communications projects that will give him marketable skills when he graduates next June. A part-time internship will be available throughout the coming academic year.

As a matter of principle, we think it’s important to pay our students and interns for their contributions to the LII, so we spend more than $100,000 per year to reward their hard work and support their academic expenses. These funds come from users and donors like you who make financial contributions to the LII. If you’d like more information on internships, or would like to sponsor a visiting fellow, please let us know. Or, you can make a donation here.

LII donor Margaret Felts on fracking and free law

Margaret FeltsWhen did you first become interested the law?

As an expert witness since 1983, I have spent many hours with client attorneys working through laws and regulations to understand how they apply to certain industry situations. As time passed, I became interested in knowing more about the laws and how they came to be.

Where did you go to college and what did you study there? Degrees?

I have a BA in Organizational Communications from Eckerd College, a BS in Petroleum Engineering from Louisiana Tech University, a Masters in Energy/Environmental Engineering from LaSalle Universtiy, a JD from Pacific McGeorge School of Law (UOP), specializing in international law and with an emphasis in banking.

Tell us about your work experience. What led you to where you are now?

I began my career as a process engineer at the Amoco Refinery in Yorktown, VA. Following my military husband to the Midwest, I continued to be a process engineer at Celanese Plastics & Specialties in Vernon TX, where we made guar powder, the primary constituent used in fracking fluid. We moved out to California a couple of years later when I accepted an engineering position in the Fuels Office at the California Energy Commission. From there, I moved into consulting and began to work as an expert witness on utility gas cases–which continues to this day–and broadened to other types of cases, including a 5 year case that involved research of water laws and regulations since 1890. From 1985 to 1995, I spent a good deal of time working on environmental issues related to ground water and hazardous waste, including stints with the Department of Defense and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (Site Mitigation). These combined experiences led to a solid understanding of the long term effects of the production of oil & gas on the environment.

In your current position, describe what you do and how you use the LII?

As an expert witness and technical consultant on complex litigation cases, I use LII to research the law and regulations so I can work intelligently with my clients.

What parts of the LII do you use the most?

Lately, I have been working on the case involving the PG&E gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA, requiring a detailed understanding of applicable regulations under 49 CFR Part 192. LII has been a life saver. LII’s embedded links to referred sections make it really easy to follow these complex regulations.

Are there features of the LII site that you find superior to other resources of the same information?

The “free” feature is the best. As a sole proprietor, I can’t afford an expensive legal resource. Electronic access and excellent search features are important to me because they allow me to work from my office and to be efficient in my research.

You recently made a gift to support the LII’s work. Can you tell us why you gave so generously?

LII makes me look good as a consultant. I can do my research and be informed before meetings. I can answer my client’s questions quickly, without leaving the office. I can bookmark pages, making them readily available during a conference call. All of these services improve my image and lead to more consulting work, which adds to my bottom line. Since LII is my resource, I pay through donations.

If you by chance encountered another LII user at a meeting or event, what would you say to convince that user to become a financial supporter?

Try LII and compare it to the other services. If you end up going back to LII frequently, and especially if you drop a subscription to another service, send LII money so they can keep providing this outstanding service.

Can you say a few words about the importance of making the law available and accessible to everyone, without cost?

This is the most important aspect of LII – everyone can access recent versions of the law. Most individuals have very specific needs that don’t rise to the level of finding an attorney, going to a law library or subscribing to a legal information service. These people can do a simple search on the internet at LII and will probably find enough information to get them started. Small businesses who must comply with specific regulations can look up the regulations on LII using the cites provided by their regulator, saving them the enormous expense of purchasing regulations that will quickly become outdated.

Making the law available and accessible to everyone without cost brings the current law to the people affected by the law. That makes sense.

As you know, New York’s highest court recently upheld local zoning laws banning hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in two towns not far from us here at Cornell. In New York, the issue was whether the state’s comprehensive law governing the oil and gas industry preempted the municipalities’ zoning authority, and the court ruled that it did not. Other than zoning laws, are there other legal options communities have used or might use to challenge local fracking activity?

The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), or the State equivalent (for instance, California Environmental Quality Act – CEQA) is the place to begin. These laws and regulations apply to any activity that must be authorized by the government. Generally, if the entity has to obtain a permit, NEPA can be used. Under this set of laws, pretty much anything can be challenged – noise, traffic, water use, contamination, air emissions, etc. Individuals and/or community organizations can use these laws and regulations to slow the progress of fracking activities – but, ultimately may not stop them as the remedy is mitigation. So, if the fracking company can eventually show that it can mitigate all of the problems by changing its procedures, it may get a permit and go forward with the fracking. Sometimes, the projected cost of fighting through a NEPA challenge rises to a level that causes the fracking company to abandon the project, but that outcome is not something one would count on.

While delaying the fracking activity through NEPA, a community can take immediate steps to develop and implement appropriate zoning laws, as we see in the New York cases. Other legal options might include trespass, injunction to prevent drinking water contamination (includes hazardous waste discharge), injunction to stop noise, traffic, etc. Of course, once damages occur, one can sue for specific damages.

Finally, researching (on LII) the history of exemptions for the oil & gas industry may reveal an underlying intent to provide energy supply security by encouraging exploration and development. Recently, some fracking companies have been arguing that they should be allowed to export product, including build LNG facilities to export excess natural gas. Clearly, if they are over-producing to the point of needing to export, the intent to provide energy security has been met and one might argue that the exemptions no longer apply.

What legal arguments are available to the fracking industry that might allow them to proceed in areas where the local population might not be welcoming to their presence?

The industry should have a good understanding of all the applicable exemptions in federal, state and local laws. Over the years, they have successfully planted these exemptions, mostly in the name of energy supply security. When challenged under NEPA, think mitigation. Knowledge of, and compliance with environmental regulations from the start to the end of a fracking job is ultimately a good defense.

Can you leave us with a the bottom-line takeaway for our readers who want to understand the legal framework of the fracking debate?

In every state, there will be a conflict between agencies that were created to implement energy policies (Energy Commission, Dept of Oil & Gas, Dept of Conservation, etc.) and those created to oversee the environment (Environmental cleanup, toxic substance management, air quality districts, water quality boards, etc.) Anyone challenging fracking operations should figure out how all of these pieces fit together, what the priorities are and how the combined set of rules are applied. Unfortunately, the picture varies from one state to another.

LII in the classroom

teacherWe count among our many friends and donors a large number of educators and students alike.  While many folks in academia and beyond use the LII to look up the US Code, the CFR, and the Federal Rules, we wanted to share some of the more remarkable ways people use the LII in the classroom as a new school year approaches:

  • Encouraging students to look up legal terminology in Wex in real-time when those terms come up during classroom discussions

  • Using our Supreme Court Collection to teach the policy behind the procedures taught to police and corrections officers

  • Reading our hyperlinked version of the Annotated Constitution in order to prepare lesson plans for Constitution Day

  • Comparing the competing arguments made by opposing parties as articulated in our Supreme Court Bulletin Previews as a tool to teach high school-level rhetoric

  • Illustrating how legislation becomes regulations through our Parallel Table of Authorities in an undergraduate civics course

  • Expanding the academic understanding of concepts like readability of legislation

We’d also like to propose one more unique service we can offer all those teachers out there as they prepare lesson plans and otherwise look for new and different resources to help them out. Our recently launched Reference Desk not only contains a wealth of information to help you, but our staff of volunteer law librarians can point you to resources you might not otherwise find on your own.  Consider this an invitation to join our user community at the Reference Desk and to use our librarians to help you educate America’s youth.

Real law librarians give you real answers… free!

refdeskEvery year, the LII receives thousands of questions by email from users of their website asking for help in finding a statute, regulation, or opinion. Likewise, many academic, county, state, court, and other public law libraries also deal with self-represented litigants and help them to find legal information relevant to their particular legal situation. Different users may ask the same or similar questions, just like law librarians may answer different patrons’ questions with the same or similar information or resources.

To better serve a greater public, the LII created a Reference Desk in the likeness of a public forum so that these users and patrons would have a place to ask their questions and have them be answered by experts in legal information resources and in finding legal information. The LII Reference Desk is the place where all categories of users can ask their questions about finding legal information with the intention that the questions, answers, and resources will then be available to everyone. The LII Reference Desk will be a go-to resource for posting questions and finding answers, as well as a knowledge bank for sharing resources, experiences, and expertise.

Elizabeth Farrell-Clifford (Florida State University) and Charlotte Schneider (Rutgers School of Law-Camden) have put together a group of stellar law librarian volunteers from around the country to monitor the Reference Desk to help answer users’ questions about finding legal information. Anyone with an internet connection can benefit from the information available from this public forum, but we want and encourage all (human) users with a question, a curiosity, or a bit of legal knowledge worth sharing to join the forum site and start posting. Any law librarians who are interested in contributing as a volunteer should register for the site and email Elizabeth or Charlotte at help AT liicornell DOT org.

Get your expertise in front of 25 million users

justicekeyOver the past few years, we’ve grown to be very good (or very, very bad–depending on your perspective) about asking our users to contribute money to support online open access to legal information.

But now we want to ask you to contribute something else that’s vitally important to our efforts to make the law accessible to all:  your expertise.

As government gets better at the basics of online publishing for legal information (albeit slowly and incrementally) we want to continue to innovate and to drive the agenda for free legal information, as we’ve done now for over twenty years.  It’s not terribly insightful to say that finding and reading the black-letter law seldom ends the inquiry.  We’ve always known that, of course, but now we’re finally in a position to really do something more to help our users understand the law.

Begun almost twenty years ago as a series of “About” pages covering major topical areas of law, Wex has grown to more than 5,000 entries ranging from simple definitions of legal terms to in-depth treatments of important topics.  We believe that Wex can become a useful destination for a wide range of folks, from those dealing with some singular, significant brush with the legal system (such as a divorce, an arrest, or a will) to those with an academic or hobbyist interest in some legal topic or case.

In short, we’ve succeeded in making the primary law of this country available, but Wex can be a tool for making it accessible.  To achieve this vision, we are re-configuring just about every aspect of Wex, and our need for new content is considerable.

If you’d consider volunteering to write for Wex, please follow this link to a very short survey to help us understand what kind of content you’d be interested in generating.

We don’t imagine the survey to be perfect in every way.  It’s just a first step to opening a dialogue about matching your interests with our needs as we re-imagine and re-design Wex in the hopes of making the LII the internet’s premier destination to learn about the law, and not merely to find it.  Articles in the “new Wex” will be for attribution, so your contributions will be recognizable as yours by whatever portion of our 26 million annual viewers find their way to your work.

Whether or not you feel like you can contribute content to this effort, we’ll keep you posted of our progress over the next several newsletters as we transform Wex into something truly unique and special.

Calling all nitpickers

kicktiresA Reporter of Decisions for the US Supreme Court once described his work as “serial peripatetic nitpicking.” New features demand that kind of effort — we want to find out what’s needed, what isn’t, what works, and what doesn’t. We think that some of you might enjoy helping us out in this way. It will give you a chance to set your inner Hermione free while doing some work that’s really important to us. Plus, you’ll get an insider’s view of upcoming products and features (fair warning: in the early stages of these projects, when things aren’t working all that well, an insider’s view can be pretty depressing. Don’t ask us how we know that.)

What’s involved?  Usually, we’ll send you a list of tasks to perform using one of our collections — and completing the tasks will depend on using the new product or feature.  In addition, we’ll ask you to suggest other tasks that we didn’t think of.  We’ll ask you to send back a narrative telling us what you did, what worked, what didn’t, what confused you, and so on.   It will take no more than an hour, and usually far less.  How often we get in touch will depend on your interests, and on what we’re working on (second fair warning: people who like regulations may get called on a lot).

If you’d like to join the LII Beta Testers, send us an email at help AT liicornell DOT org.