skip navigation
search

admin

Friends:

If you done it, it ain’t bragging
— Walt Whitman

First of all, thank you to everyone who donated during our June campaign. It was extremely successful — we met our goal and then some — and all of us here are more grateful to you than I can say.  With your help, we done it.  Without your help, we couldn’t.

Because I think you should know what your money is buying — and because I am both lazy and immodest — I’m sending along something originally written as an internal report for our parent institution.  I hope that you’ll find it relevant — and a source of some pride.  A good many of you have supported us for as long as we have been asking for support, and all of you can be proud of the scale and diversity of what you’ve made possible. It is, if I may say so, a very long and impressive list.

Here’s the report:

This year is the LII’s 25th year of operation — which, in Internet years, makes us older than Cornell University.   With that in mind, this report is in a once-and-once-only format. It is a quadranscentennial, shameless display of  immodesty, nevertheless lacking glossy paper and eye candy (and yeah, I had to look “quadranscentennial” up).

First, though, the annual barrage of statistics.  We now publish around half a million pages of information.  Over the last year, we’ve been visited by 34,701,568 people from 241 countries and territories, including a few visits from the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, a part of Russia (no votes were altered).   88% of our visitors were from the US. To put it another way, our materials were used by roughly 9% of all men, women, and children in the United States.  Since January, traffic to the site has risen by 20-25%, driven by increased public desire to read the actual text of laws related to immigration, membership on the National Security Council, the Constitution, and a wide variety of Federal criminal statutes. Many — from all points on the political spectrum — have told us that they are glad to have a source that is objective, trusted, and free.

But the LII is far more than numbers.  It makes about as much sense to try to understand our activities through traffic statistics and financial results as it would to try to understand the full range of what the Law School does by counting its graduates.  

Over the past quarter-century, the LII has helped millions upon millions of people understand and solve problems they encounter in their personal and professional lives, and helped lawyers — particularly those who work in pro bono or legal-services settings — to assist tens of millions of clients.   We are a critical resource for lawyers and other officials at all levels of government. We have spawned imitators and namesakes in at least 20 countries. A good many are the official publishers of law in those jurisdictions.  Arguably, we have had the greatest public impact of any program in the history of the Cornell Law School, carrying the name of the School and its parent institution to hundreds of millions of people, and returning unprecedented and unique value and goodwill to the School and the University.  

Each day,  the LII is visited by somewhere between 5 and 7 times the number of people who have attended the Law School in its entire history.  We have profoundly affected the work of American lawyers, both directly and through a stream of innovations and open-access law sites created by others who followed our lead or built on resources we have published. We have advised and assisted many of those others. The LII’s founders and its technical leaders have been recognized by the American Bar Association, the American Association of Law Libraries, and most commercial legal information providers as pioneering innovators in the field of legal informatics and in the legal profession as a whole. The Dean has remarked that, “if the LII were a faculty member, it would be the most frequently quoted faculty member at the Cornell Law School”. So far this calendar year, entries from our WEX legal encyclopedia have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, the Allentown Morning Call, the Picayune Item, and the Cherokee Nation One Feather, among many, many other publications, online and off. A reporter for ProPublica, formerly with the New York Times and the Washington Post, has referred to us as “a foundational part of our civic infrastructure”.   Another, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize (plus two additional Pulitzer nominations), a Polk Award, and an IRE Medal, is a regular donor.

The LII was the first legal-information site on the Web, the first web site at Cornell, and somewhere around the 30th web site in the world (by one estimate, there are now 1.2 billion). We were the first to offer for-credit, multi-institutional distance learning courses in law.  We developed the first web browser for the Microsoft Windows platform.  The LII was the first to offer the United States Code and the US Constitution on the web, and the first to offer the opinions of the Supreme Court, 8 years before the Court began developing its web site.  

For a time, in the early years, we published an online magazine for the National Association of Securities Dealers.  We have collaborated on joint projects with numerous institutions in the US and abroad, including the Government Publishing Office, the House of Representatives, and operations like our own in Spain, Italy, Japan, South Africa, and Sweden among others.  We have consulted for the World Bank, the Open Society Institute, the Swedish International Development Agency, the UK National Archives, the United Nations, the Library of Congress, the FDA, the DOT, MITRE Corporation, and all of the major commercial legal publishers.  We were consultants for the Harvard Law School Library for nearly a decade.

We served on American Bar Association committees concerned with public participation in Federal agency rulemaking, and with the accreditation standards related to distance learning.  We have testified on legal information policy issues before two Congressional committees, and spoken to groups at the United Nations, the Global Forum on Law and Development, and the Interparliamentary Union, each on multiple occasions.  We have worked with the European Commission and the Hague Conference on Private International Law on the problem of obtaining authoritative legal information across national boundaries. We have given dozens of presentations at AALS, AALL, and CALI.  For five years, our version of the tax code was published on CD-ROM by the IRS for use in its own outreach programs.  We were, for a few years, the de facto editors of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure.

We have often served as a matchmaker and convenor.  Academics who study or otherwise work with government have benefitted from the unusual cooperation that is available to Cornell researchers because officials throughout government are well aware of the services the LII provides.  We have introduced law faculty to collaborators from the computer-science world, as when we introduced Bob Hillman to a Cornell expert on software development as part of his work on software contracts and the UCC.   Our guest blog, VoxPopuLII, has become a place where practitioners in all of the disciplines that touch on legal informatics — law librarianship, information science, and design, among others — can find accessible reports of the latest work that touches their areas of interest.  We have attracted postdoctoral students from Serbia, Finland, Brazil, and Spain. We hosted residencies for online democracy activists working in the Middle East, South America, Africa, and the Ukraine, and for an African software engineer building a plug-and-play system now used to publish legal information in 10 African countries.  We held the second largest conference in the history of the School, with the largest international attendance of any.  LII principals serve on editorial boards and program committees for any number of international conferences and publications in the area of legal informatics, law and AI, and legal publishing technology.

We have created tremendous goodwill in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. Our donors include a former president of the World Bank, and the procurement manager for a food bank;  a former Solicitor General of the United States, and a guy who prototypes machine parts for a living; at least 7 Federal judges, and a woman who runs a project that works for prisoner’s rights at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Our acquisition of the OYEZ collection of Supreme Court opinions brought recognition from an unexpected direction (and one near to my heart):  program credits and lobby notices at the Berkeley Rep, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the Washington Arena Stage performances of “Roe”, a play about the Supreme Court.

We have done all of that with a staff whose effective size has never exceeded eight, and which for the first fifteen years of the LII’s history was substantially smaller.   

We have great things in the works for the coming year. As most of you know, through the generosity of its founder, we acquired the Oyez collection of Supreme Court oral arguments last fall; we are now  building out the Oyez materials in ways that connect to our other collections.  We are much of the way through renovating — and hugely improving — a regulatory-agency monitoring program called Docket Wrench. Originally created by the Sunlight Foundation, but deprecated and then put up for adoption, it will provide remarkable insights into notice-and-comment rulemaking activity, using over 3 terabytes of data.  In another line of investigation, we want to extend our work on using natural-language processing to identify and link statutory and regulatory definitions in ways that make use of definitions from authorizing statutes easier to follow, and allow the assembly of a “CFR dictionary” that invites comparison of definitions across different areas.  Last summer, we also adopted the former Avon Center’s Women & Justice collection, which we’ve been expanding with additional content and will be re-launching on our domain shortly under the name “And Justice For All.”  

We’re looking forward to another 25 years that will be as successful as the first 25.   As always, we welcome your comments and suggestions.

All the best,

Tom, Sara, Craig, Nic, Sylvia, Kimball, Val, Charlotte, Taylor, and Pete.

PS:  We’re in the middle of our June fundraising campaign.  At the risk of looking like we’re a weight-loss program, purveyor of acai berries, or other shady user of anonymous testimonials, I’d like to share some things our donors told us about their reasons for donating:

“Because you help me win claims for Veterans.”

“I refer to this site on occasion as the most reliable and well organized place to obtain the most current and precise version of provisions of the U.S. Code. the site provides a very valuable service to attorneys and to the public at large.”

“I am a former hazmat training officer, now retired from the force. I now teach the transportation companies of Quebec how to train their employees for shipping and hauling dangerous goods through Canada and the U.S. It’s really great to have a web site dedicated to informing people like me on the latest rules and regulations. Keeps me up to date ! Thanks !”

“Cornell’s LII has been an immense help to me and my clients for many years now.”

“I received very accurate legal information from a trusted source, Cornell. I have used this service for years in my representation of federal employees before administrative forums. I truly appreciate the availability of pertinent and very useful info about our laws.”

“I love your website. It’s very useful to the experienced attorney, as well as to the lay person. In Washington, D.C., the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square bears the inscription “A University for the People.” Cornell continues that awesome American tradition with its website.”

“I believe the access to the law, via LII, provides an exceptional opportunity for all to have direct access to the legal and regulatory framework that controls so many aspects of our daily life. Book collections are increasingly more expensive and require costly physical space, which means that traditional public access points for non-university, non-legal everyday citizens are disappearing or are moving to pay-per-access services to save money. LII has been out in front of almost, if not all, other internet providers and is by far the most user friendly.”

“I NEED THE INFO” (that one suggests a Twitter campaign in which we respond by saying “WE NEED THE MONEY”)

It’s been in the news lately, but what do you know about the Emoluments Clause?  Cornell Law student Stephanie Jurkowski recently contributed the following to our Wex legal reference:

Also known as the Title of Nobility Clause, Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any person holding a government office from accepting any present, emolument, office, or title from any “King, Prince, or foreign State,” without congressional consent. This clause is meant to prevent external influence and corruption of American officers by foreign States. A similar provision was included in the Articles of Confederation, applicable to both federal and state officers. The language of the modern clause, however, suggests that only federal government officials are prohibited from accepting any emoluments.

That the phrase “Offices of Profit or Trust under the United States” applies to all appointed officials is undisputed, however there is much debate as to whether it extends to elected officials.

History does not provide a clear answer: When he served as Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton produced a list of persons holding such offices at the request of the Senate; the list did not include any elected positions. Further, during their presidencies, while George Washington did not seek or obtain congressional consent for foreign gifts, Andrew Jackson did.

The Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act of 1966, on the other hand, enumerates several elected positions in its definition of “employees” who may not accept any gift of more than minimal value without congressional approval. Such “employees” include the President and the Vice President, a Member of Congress, and the spouses and dependents of the same.

A constitutional amendment was introduced in 1810 to modify the Emoluments Clause. The effect would have been to strip the citizenship of any U.S. citizen who accepted, claimed, received, or retained any title of nobility from a foreign government. However, this amendment was never ratified, though it is technically still pending before the states.

The interpretation of the Emoluments Clause has never been litigated before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Historically, there’s been surprisingly little litigation around the Emoluments Clause.  Now, of course, litigation centers around whether the use by foreign officials of hotels of the Trump brand violates the prohibitions of this clause.  The first lawsuit was filed by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in the Southern District of New York in January of 2017.  The Attorneys General of Maryland and the District of Columbia filed a second suit in the District of Maryland last month.   

For over 20 years the LII has been one of only two universities that are able to publish an official electronic version of the Supreme Court’s decision within minutes after its release. In 1995, these opinions had to manually be converted to HTML. Behind the tedious task was Bill Gameros, law student with a military background, who became the LII Bulletin’s first Editor-in-Chief. Formed by Professor Peter Martin, the bulletin provides a complete synopsis and analysis of Supreme Court rulings written by law students and emailed to subscribers within five days of the court’s decision. For this Alumni profile we talk to Bill about his formative years, and the foundation of the bulletin.

Could you please briefly describe your first career as an army officer?

I graduated from West Point in 1987 as an Armor Officer. Armor Officer means I would be in charge of tanks and scouts. So for my time as a junior officer, I went from a second lieutenant to a captain. During the 1990-91 Gulf War, I was a scout platoon leader for Fourth Battalion 64th Armor, then part of the 24th Infantry Division. Probably the most interesting part of my time as a junior officer, was arriving in Saudi Arabia in August of 1990. There was no infrastructure for us. Literally our first nights there we were in a cement factory. We then go out in the middle of the desert in Saudi Arabia and set up camp and wait for the next 4 or 5 months. We spent those months training and getting ready for the war that looked more inevitable as time went on. We went into Iraq one night, two weeks before the ground war “officially” started; we never came back. My unit spent all of our time in Iraq. We came back after that in March. I got out of the Army in August 1992, next stop Ithaca, NY.

Why did you decide Ithaca and to go to Law school after the Army?

I was looking for a joint J.D./M.B.A.When I was in the Army, my next door neighbor was a Cornell Law grad. He told me I should go and look at Cornell. Because if I go and look, I’m going to like it and that’s where I’m going to want to go. He was exactly right. I toured all the other campuses that I looked at, and it just came down to Cornell’s small size and I really liked everything I saw there.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Brunswick, Maine.

Did you struggle at all with adjusting to Cornell after the Army?

No, not really. I enlisted in the Army when I was 17. I was enlisted for a year at the West Point prep school and then went to West Point. Honestly, my step dad was a Naval Officer, and I didn’t know what civilians did. I came to Cornell with the idea that if I didn’t like what civilians did, I was going to go back in the Army. However, I liked what civilians did.  I even met my wife at Cornell Law School, so it was a good deal all around. Staying was easy.

How did your legal education compare to being at West Point?

They are night and day different. At the bottom or the core at West Point is something called the “approved solution.” There is a right answer, every time, period, no matter what. One of the things that was different about the law school is there are sometimes many answers. Some are better than others but there’s not that absolute “there is a right answer.” Part of that may be a distinction of the law school as inherently a Liberal Arts style education, where West Point is an engineering program, so it comes from a different educational basis.

How did the Bulletin come about?

I was working with Professor Martin with New York Court of Appeals. I was working with him converting that to HTML manually, that’s how we did it at the time. This was way back in the dark ages of the internet. We had a thing called an FTP site, I don’t even know if they use it anymore, but it stands for File Transfer Protocol. We used FTP site to get the opinions, and then we’d convert them into HTML and publish them. So from that, I had already been doing the conversion work and it was his idea that we should go ahead and figure out some way to provide some sort of enhanced content that related to the first source material that we had from the New York Court of Appeals.

Originally the Bulletin was focused on the High Court for the State of New York. Why was that?

Again, it was because we had a really good data source. We would get copies of the Opinions the day they came out and Professor Martin would give them to me and then I would convert them to HTML. It was a collaborative process for designing what the format for LII Bulletin New York was after that.

Was there anything about working for the LII that made you a better Lawyer after graduation?

Yes, ultimately you have to be a good writer in a team setting. One of the things that it helps for is being able to work with other people. Because I do litigation I can’t speak for the transactional folks, but on the litigation side, it did help with the process of working in teams to develop better written product. That is still something that you have to do at the law firms I work at even today.

What do you think of the Bulletin being switched to the US Supreme court and covering the entire docket?

It certainly is going to reach a broader audience. I used to joke that there is no such thing as a Supreme court case that would affect my practice and that hasn’t been true. Actually, a couple of them have. The most important one is an obscure case called Stern v. Marshall. It affected adversary proceedings in bankruptcy court. But I think there’s a general interest not just among lawyers but among nonlawyers as well as to what goes on at the U.S Supreme Court. Contrasted with the Court of Appeals in New York, I think a lot of people are surprised, they don’t expect that to be the highest court in New York. When they hear the trial court called the Supreme Court they think New York’s upside down I guess. But I think in terms of reaching a broader audience it makes a lot of sense to go with the US Supreme Court.

Why do you think people should support the LII?

I think the LII provides a unique and good public service. In terms of getting the content fast and free, it’s really hard to beat.

Stay tuned next month for our interview with Kathy Gameros, our second ever Editor in Chief, who just so happens to be Bill’s wife…

*The Bulletin first started with about 1,000 subscribers. Today, we have over 15,000 and counting. Not a subscriber? Stay informed with us!

Friends:

The LII is launching a corporate sponsorship program.  We plan to replace all advertising on the site with simple notices recognizing our sponsors.  We estimate that each notice will be seen by more than 165,000 people each year. More details about the mechanics are here.

Why should you sponsor us?

  • You want to associate your company or firm with free and open access to law.
  • You want to associate your company or firm with an objective source of information about government and the rules under which it operates.
  • You want to associate yourself with the oldest and best-known developers of Internet legal technology in the world — the people who built the first legal Web site, and the first Web browser for Windows, and have led experimentation in legal information technology ever since.

You’ll also help remove advertising from the site. The goal is to completely replace the ads with a single notice on each page that recognizes one of our sponsors.  Each sponsor’s notice will be shown on a percentage of the entire run of pages within a particular LII collection.  At a minimum, 165,000 people will see your organization as the sole sponsor of whatever page they are viewing (the exact workings are explained here)

How will this help you?  I suppose that as a long-time dweller in America’s Most Enlightened City I should talk about karma — and believe me, you can get some of the good kind, and a lot of personal satisfaction, by helping us and the 33 million people who depend on us

But there are more practical reasons as well.  You’ll make yourself known to an audience that is educated, engaged, and aware.  The people who visit the LII site are overwhelmingly interested in objectivity and accuracy.  They’re public-spirited.  They come from all parts of the political and cultural spectrum.  They all have some interest in law or the legal system.  

And they’re amazingly diverse — our individual supporters include a former President of the World Bank and the head buyer for a food bank in Michigan, a former Solicitor General of the United States and the owner of a business that makes custom machine parts in Rochester, NY, a journalist who’s won the Pulitzer once and been a finalist three times, and the lawyer for the public transport system in Philadelphia.  Our corporate sponsors include Fastcase, Justia, and Morrison and Foerster.

Sponsoring us will make you feel good about you, and make them feel good about you.  It shows that you want to help us help others to find and understand the law using a free and objective source.  If that sounds good to you, please contact us at sponsorship@liicornell.org, or call our Fundraising Director, Peter Kopp, at 607-255-9634.

Charlotte joined the LII in 2012 as a part-time editor/publisher for the Supreme Court Bulletin and Previews. She also helped create the videos on our YouTube Channel. Since then, Charlotte’s roles have transformed into becoming one of our own virtual librarians for the site as well as coordinating our social media. Continue reading to find out more about who Charlotte is and what she does.

You’ve been working with us for 5 years now, how did you get started?

Once upon a time, I spent a semester as an intern in the Cornell Law Library. One of my projects was to make educational videos explaining some free law sites. One of those sites was the LII, and because the LII was in the same building, I was encouraged to reach out to Tom [Bruce] and Sara [Frug] to get some helpful information so that the video about the LII site would be that much more informative. I guess they liked me because the very same day that my internship ended, I got an email from Tom wanting to talk about a job. The email’s subject line was “An offer you can’t accept.” I never knew if that was a typo or an enticement, but 5 years later, I still have that email, and Tom still leaves me wondering, sometimes.

What is your primary job?

I am a librarian at Rutgers Law School, in the Camden location. Specifically, I am the Government Documents and Reference Librarian, managing the library’s Federal Depository Library collection. I do other stuff, too, but that list would probably be long.

Where did you go to school?

I got my BBA from UMass Amherst, my JD & MBA from UMass Dartmouth (School of Law and College of Business, respectively), and my MSLIS from Syracuse.

What’s your current role at the LII?

I am the librarian! I manage the Virtual Reference Desk and much of LII’s social media.

What is the Reference Desk?

The Reference Desk is what it sounds like, but virtual! It’s a forum that allows people to ask questions about legal information that can be answered by law librarians or knowledgeable members of the community.

What other roles have you held with us?

I started out helping with the Supreme Court Bulletin–editing the Previews and publishing them online, and helping out with the end of Term review. I have helped out with some data collection and updating of the Federal Rules and some state information pages. And I also made some of the videos you see on the LII’s YouTube channel.  

What’s your favorite question from the Reference Desk?

Actually, it depends. There are a few instances where other registered users will answer a reference question (before or instead of a librarian), and I think that’s just fantastic because that is exactly one of the reasons we went with the forum setup. There are other questions that turn into those teachable moments, and some others that are just really interesting exchanges. Some posts unearth hidden gems.

Most difficult question from Reference Desk?

I would say that questions might be more frustrating than difficult, if anything. In general, it’s difficult to do a proper reference interview in an asynchronous format, so some of the more frustrating questions are the ones where it is hard to decipher a question from what was posted or where there’s just some disconnect, or where the patron just keeps pushing back. Other times, there’s just only so much information you can give, and it just doesn’t feel like enough.

Favorite feature of the site?

I can pick one thing, but that will just get me to another thing, and then another, and before we know it, everything about it would be listed as my favorite. If I were to start somewhere, I might say the Table of Popular Names or the Parallel Table of Authorities.

What motivates you to stay involved with us?

Mostly, the mission; also, the people. A little bit because I am quite attached to my LII email address.  

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

Nearly everything that we do is governed by some kind of law, whether federal, state, or even more local, or some combination of these. Since ignorance of the law is no excuse for disobeying the law, people must be able to know, find, and understand these laws by which they are bound. And in order for there to be equal justice for all, everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, must be able to access this information.

Do you like to skateboard?

I do! Some people at the 2014 CALIcon in Boston may have caught a glimpse of the joy it brings me!

Interesting facts about you? First job, weirdest job, etc

First job… here’s the Jersey Girl in me: beach badge checker. All the kids were doing it, so I woke up extra early every morning and I got paid to sit on near-empty beaches. Life’s a beach.

Weirdest job… I guess weird is relative. I will probably always think it a little weird that I worked as a switchboard operator at the local hospital on my college vacations. It did take me a few months on the job to get comfortable paging doctors and calling codes but once I was okay being the voice heard throughout the hospital, it turned out to be a pretty cool job.

Interesting facts: I play in a pool league year-round, and I play on a softball team in the Fall and Spring seasons. I love to garden, cook, and bake. I grew up on horse farms and around horses.

It’s conference season again, and we’re back from the 2017 Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction conference, where presenters and audience members were fired up about algorithmic accountability and, well, drumming.

Librarians, as a group, are highly attuned to developments in information retrieval, and during the past several years, long-standing legal information providers have been joined by numerous startup companies in applying new technologies to legal research. In past years, legal informatics conferences covered these topics. This year, University of Colorado Law Library Director Susan Nevelow Mart presented a talk entitled “The Human Element in Search Algorithms: Bias and Accountability in Legal Databases”, based on her article “The Algorithm as a Human Artifact: Implications for Legal {Re}Search“.  

Mart presented the results of her research on search query performance across six services: Castext, Fastcase, Google Scholar, Lexis Advance, Ravel and Westlaw. The research found less than a 10% overlap in results across all six databases, and on average, 40% of the results were unique to one of the six.

The research has implications for practicing attorneys, scholars, students, and technologists. And it’s helping us refine our own thinking about how we inform people who use our website about what we’re doing behind the scenes to try to help them get the information they need.

Can you match laws to current events?  We put together this five-question quiz as a fun way of showing how current events drive people to our website to read the laws behind the headlines.  See how you do–answers are at the bottom.

 

  1. Traffic on this page spiked on January 29, 2017 with 95,434 pageviews:
    1. The First Amendment to the US Constitution
    2. 8 USC 1182 – Inadmissible Aliens
    3. Wex article – Executive Power
    4. The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution

     

  2. Two days later, Twitter sent more than 50,000 of the 146,000 people who came to this page:
    1. 50 USC 3021 – National Security Council
    2. 8 USC 1187 – Visa Waiver Program for Certain Visitors
    3. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26
    4. Wex article – Second Amendment

     

  3. 14 CFR 250.5 saw a huge traffic spike on April 11, 2017.  What is it about?
    1. Income taxes on foreign subsidiaries of US businesses
    2. Sanctuary cities
    3. Oil and gas exploration in national parks
    4. Compensation for airline passengers denied boarding

     

  4. Facebook users came to our site more than 90,000 times on February 14, 2017 to read which of the following:
    1. Wex article – Executive Power
    2. The law declaring Valentine’s day a federal holiday
    3. The statutory definition of treason
    4. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution

     

  5. Links from the February 9th edition of the online Washington Post sent thousands of visitors to our website to read the regulation concerning:
    1. Proper retirement of American flags
    2. Use of public office for private gain
    3. Placarding requirements for vehicles transporting HAZMAT
    4. Disclosure of executive compensation under the securities laws

     

Answers:

  1. After the President’s executive order on immigration, users flocked to our site to read 8 USC 1182 and other statutes related to immigration.  (Answer b)
  2. A statute no one paid much attention to until the President announced his attention to appoint his advisor Steve Bannon to the National Security Council, 50 USC 3021 deals with the composition of the NSC.  (Answer a)
  3. 14 CFR 250.5 addresses compensation of passengers denied boarding by airlines.  Its popularity in April was tied to news accounts of an incident aboard a United Airlines aircraft.  (Answer d)
  4. On February 14, 2017 the American public was reading about the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Michael Flynn as the National Security Advisor.  Apparently as a result of those stories, the definition of treason found in 18 USC 2381 was a topic of debate on social media and a major source of traffic on our website. (Answer c)
  5. On February 9th, the Washington Post was sending us traffic from multiple stories covering Kellyanne Conway’s televised statement about Ivanka Trump’s merchandise.  Those articles linked to 5 CFR 2635.702, which addresses the use of public office for private gain.  (Answer b)

In 2016, NPR and The Marshall Project published an article exposing abuse of inmates in the Special Management Unit inside the Lewisburg Prison. Featured in that article was the Lewisburg Prison Project (LPP), a non-profit organization that provides support for prisoners and fights to ensure that their human and constitutional rights are upheld. The three person staffed organization consists of an outreach coordinator, paralegal and legal assistant Elayne Sobel, who also happens to be a donor to the LII. We were intrigued by Elayne’s role and wanted to know more about her.

How did you first get involved with the Lewisburg Prison Project?

I was hired at Lewisburg Prison Project (“LPP”) in 2007 as a Legal Assistant and remained until 2010 when I retired due to family illness. I continued as a volunteer until I returned as a paid employee in April 2015

You have been recognized for your exceptional work at the Prison Project in the past. Can you share a little bit about that recognition and any other accomplishments you’ve had?

In June, 2012, I received the Karl and Isabelle Patten Award.  Isabelle Patten was a founding member of LPP in 1973.  Karl Patten (who just celebrated his 90th birthday) remains a board member of LPP.  The Patten Award reads:

“Awarded to ______ for following in the footsteps of Isabelle and Karl Patten who inspire us all with their lifetime of standing up for oppressed people here and everywhere: Inmates in prison, Citizens denied their civil liberties, The innocent victims of imperial wars, Communities besieged by marauding corporate polluters, Working people tossed away by an indifferent economic order.”

What do you find most challenging about your job(s)? Most rewarding?

Most challenging is the amount of letters we receive daily describing the abuse and injustices experienced in the prisons throughout the state and the country.

Most rewarding is the appreciation that prisoners express for any amount of help that LPP can provide.

Volunteering at the LPP isn’t your only job. How did your interest in Central Susquehanna Valley Mediation Center (CSVMC) begin and evolve? *CSVMC is now a non-profit mediation center that works closely with local county courts in Pennsylvania generally focused on personal conflicts such as custody, elder care, and consumer disputes.

My husband started CSVMC it in 2010 before he died that year of cancer.  With the help of 4 other volunteer mediators, we became the first board of CSVMC.

What is your current role with CSVMC?

I am currently finishing my last term on the board which ends this year.  Over the past 7 years I  held the positions of secretary, treasurer and president of the board.  I continue as a volunteer mediator.

How and when did you first hear about the LII?

The paralegal that I work with first directed me to LII (although we just refer to it as “Cornell website”)  years ago when I came back to volunteer.

How long have you been using the LII as a resource for your work and why do you use us?

I want to say at least the last 5 years, maybe longer.  It’s the first site that normally pops up on when I search for a legal code or citation.

You recently made a gift in support of our work. Why did you decide to give?

Because at LPP we use the LII site so often to help inmates who sometime have no other resource to get information.  We are limited in manpower and financial resources, so if we can get information from a reliable source, without cost, to pass on to indigent prisoners, we will do it.

If you were to tell others about the LII and why it’s worth supporting, what would you say?

“How much is the information that is obtainable from LII worth to you?”

“I come from an era when legal research meant paging through legal books, so I’m sure that to me, I am appreciative of saving any time on the LII site.  LPP produces legal bulletins for prisoners at little or no cost and we make them available to download at no cost from our website.  And yes, LPP is out there raising money like all nonprofits, but we can’t forget about the clients we are here to serve.”

On May 12, LII engineers Sylvia Kwakye, Ph.D., and Nic Ceynowa hosted a presentation by the 14 Cornell University Masters of Engineering students they’d supervised this spring as they presented their project work on the Docket Wrench application to LII and Cornell Law Library staff.

LII adopted the Docket Wrench application from the Sunlight Foundation when it closed its software development operation last fall. Docket Wrench is designed to help users explore public participation in the rulemaking process.  It supports exploration by rulemaking docket, agency, commenting company or organization, and the language of the comments themselves. It is a sprawling application with many moving parts, and when LII adopted it, it had not been running for two years.

On the infrastructure team, Mahak Garg served as project manager and, along with Mutahir Kazmi, focused on updating and supporting infrastructure for the application. They worked on updating the software and creating a portable version of the application for other teams to use for development.

The search team, Gaurav Keswani, Soorya Pillai, Ayswarya Ravichandran, Sheethal Shreedhara, and Vinayaka Suryanarayana, ensured that data made its way into, and could be correctly retrieved from, the search engine. This work included setting up and maintaining automated testing to ensure that the software would continue to function correctly after each enhancement was made.

The entities team, Shweta Shrivastava, Vikas Nelamangala, and Saarthak Chandra, ensured that the software could detect and extract the names of corporations and organizations submitting comments in the rulemaking process. Because the data on which Docket Wrench originally relied was no longer available, they researched, found a new data source, and altered the software to make use of it. (Special thanks to Jacob Hileman at the Center for Responsive Politics for his help with the Open Secrets API.)

Deekshith Belchappada, Monisha Chandrashekar, and Anusha Morappanavar, evaluated alternate techniques for computing document similarity, which enables users to find clusters of similar comments and see which language from a particular comment is unique. And Khaleel R  prototyped the use of Apache Spark to detect and mark legal citations and legislation names from within the documents.

So, where is it?

The good news is that after a semester of extremely hard work, “Team Docket” has Docket Wrench up and running again. But we need to ingest a great deal more data and test to make sure that the application can run once we’ve done so. This will take a while. As soon as the students have completed their final project submission, though, we’ll be starting a private beta in which our collaborators can nominate dockets, explore the service, and propose features. Please join us!

A couple of years back, we asked our donors a pair of related questions.  The first was, “How much do you value the LII’s work on innovative features?” The second was, “How much do you agree or disagree that the LII provides useful, innovative features?”  I’ve been puzzling over the answers ever since.   On the one hand, it seemed as though you guys didn’t particularly value our work on innovative features.   On the other, it seemed as though you very much like the ones we provide.   It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I should’ve been looking at a third question, one we have asked in nearly every survey and fundraising campaign for the last 5 years: “What can we change or improve about the LII’s services”.   Overwhelmingly, people answer, “Don’t change a thing”.

You could read that in two different ways:  it’s either the highest possible endorsement, or a panic-tinged plea that we not break anything with some misguided feat of techno-hotrodding.  We have done our share of techno-hotrodding, heaven knows, and not a little of it has been misguided — but that stuff has almost always ended up on the cutting-room floor.  That said, we have some very definite opinions about where innovation fits.

A long time ago, almost a quarter century, I wrote the first web browser for Microsoft Windows.  It has gone to a happily anonymous fate, overshadowed by more famous contemporaries.  But it did a number of things that nobody else had done before, including background fetching and caching of web pages, search-engine integration, and most widely known of all, the “mailto:” link.   That’s the trick that allows you to send an e-mail by clicking on a link in a web document.  Something like it had been suggested by a few people, back in 1992, but we were the first to do it. And now, everyone in the world uses it, and nobody thinks much about where it came from.  And that is exactly what we want.

The best innovations do things that are obvious in hindsight, and they do them so unobtrusively that nobody really notices them.  That quality of readiness-to-hand is overwhelmingly important  to us (and yeah, you just caught an aging stagehand having a Heidegger moment).   There is, too, a kind of technologist’s Hippocratic oath:  first, do no harm.  The improvements can’t get in the way.

We don’t let that scare us off; we’ve seen what happens when others let the worst Luddites among their users blockade improvements, or neglect them altogether — just take a look at PACER, which has remained in technological stasis for more than a decade.  But it takes a long time.  Twenty-five years ago, Peter Martin could spend a winter afternoon putting a Supreme Court decision into HTML, with hyperlinks, and create a Web-wide sensation.  Today, something like the linked-definitions feature we just added to the CFR takes 3 years of effort by teams of student software engineers who go on to work for Amazon, Facebook, Oracle, and Google.   But we hope that by the time a new feature appears at your fingertips, it just seems… obvious.  

Just like it should have been there all along.

T.
PS:  Bob Ambrogi, the noted legal-tech journalist, just published a piece on our guest-blog that talks about the LII’s history of innovation.  I recommend it.