skip navigation
search

Friends,

Something special happens when you make legal materials available to the world without cost or other access barriers: people use them. And not just for themselves, but to help others.

“I use your site regularly in my efforts to advocate for individuals with disabilities. I appreciate it very much.”

And today only, your gift goes twice as far. Our friends at Justia have pledged to match every gift we receive this Giving Tuesday. No limits. No restrictions. No fine print.

DOUBLE YOUR IMPACT TODAY ONLY

Everyone wants to give more, to do more, to help more. Your (doubled!) gift funds our work, which in turn enables thousands of worthy causes to carry out their good works without paying for access to expensive legal databases.

“Your site constantly helps me give Veterans the help they need for their claims.”

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

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

The calling card of the LII website has always been the creative application of technology that allows 30 million people each year to get the law without cost. But the real magic of the LII is the way our website empowers so many of those people to take their knowledge of the law and go help others. We couldn’t be more proud of that. And we couldn’t be more grateful for the way you make that possible–today and every day.

DOUBLE YOUR IMPACT TODAY ONLY

Thank you,

Craig Newton
Co-Director
Legal Information Institute

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. 

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.

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

DONATE NOW

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.

DONATE NOW

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


Tom may be retiring this summer, but we’re shamelessly squeezing every last bit of work from him before he goes. In addition to giving seminars on legal informatics for the new and long-standing engineers, he’s been wrapping up work on a data model for federal agency structure, which will make it easier for everyone to get information about federal programs and agencies, no matter what they’re called this year.

On the product development front, we’ve started adding links to external named entities like chemicals listed in the CAS registry. These links will help make it easier to find information about things in the world, regardless of how many nicknames they have.

Over the next several months, we’ll be rolling out features that improve the accessibility of our entire website. Thus far we’ve partnered with Public.Resource.Org to swap machine-readable information for low-quality image files. These substitutions will make it possible for people with vision impairments to read the figures in the Code of Federal Regulations. You can see the first batch of equations at 34 CFR 685.203 and read more about the initiative on our blog.

We look forward to updating you on our progress in our next newsletter.

Sara Frug
Associate Director

portrait_of_Thomas_bruce

So, it’s time.  June 30th will be my last day as Director of the Legal Information Institute.

That is good reason for mixed feelings. The LII has been the center of my professional and personal life for the last 27 years. The step away will leave a large gap in both.  Some of the challenges have not changed much over three decades, but many have. It’s time for fresh perspectives. And I’m ready for a third career, or a seventh, depending on how you count.

I’m proud of what the LII has done.  We’ve helped a lot of people to find and understand the law — over the years, hundreds of millions. That is the most important thing to the world, I think. It is not the most important thing we have done.  We were among the first, if not the first, to break the commercial publishers’ intellectual monopoly on legal information.  When Peter Martin and I came on the scene, legal-information publishing was whatever WEXIS said it was.  Legal publishers were deeply concerned with the breadth of their collections, and hardly at all with improved presentation or integrated information architecture. They could not have cared less about the needs of non-lawyers.  It was all a mile wide and an inch deep. The time was ripe for change, and we were the first to use the Web to try our hands at it. We started something that has gone a long way and is still going, all around the world.

No doubt others might have done that. A very few preceded us, using methods that existed before the Internet. Certainly many joined us after our first forays in 1992. But I think the LII’s concern for the non-lawyer public and the deep need that it has for access to primary legal texts was and is unique — even (maybe especially) among open-access providers.  Regulations remain the largest contact surface between the global public and the legal system. Case law remains the primary concern of the vast majority of legal publishers, commercial or otherwise. There’s a disconnect there.   When we are at our best, our work reconnects the public with the system that governs them. Since 2016, that work has become both more prominent and more urgent.

Most of all, I am proud of all of the things that the LII has become, of all of the ways in which it has changed and grown over time, of its resilience and of the endless inventiveness of those who have worked here.  That has ensured our relevance for much longer than is usual for any program based in an American law school. I know of only one or two of any kind in any law school that have been as durable. None has performed a greater public service.  Our small group has preferred hard problems over shiny techno-trends, resisted dogma, and shunned facile media-friendly approaches. We have never assumed that serving a good cause guaranteed that our choices and methods were necessarily the best.  Bob Wilson once said that an artist asks “what is it?” rather than saying “that is what it is”. I hope that we have been legal-information artists in exactly that way. Most of the time, we have been.

Our place within a first-rate American law school has provided us with faculty expertise and enthusiastic and knowledgeable students. It has often been a good home.  Deans Osgood and Schwab grasped our vision and provided significant understanding and support. Eduardo Peñalver has, more than anyone since the very early days, seen the importance of the mission and understood the many intangible benefits that we bring to Cornell.

In 2007, we began a series of partnerships and entrepreneurial activities that, greatly enhanced by support from many of you, promise to keep the LII financially sound for the foreseeable future. That support has meant the world to me. Ed Walters has been our most enthusiastic cheerleader and supporter as well as a fantastic source of advice and information. Invaluable contributions of time, resources and especially wisdom from Jack Lewis and Tim Stanley helped us chart a new course and gave us a bright future. The LII’s artistry has been fueled by their Diet Coke, athletic coaching, and tremendous expertise. I am indebted to them for all of that and for what it has made it possible for us to do.  

My place will be taken by Sara Frug, who will direct the LII’s technical efforts, and Craig Newton, who will be in charge of the editorial and outreach facets of the organization.  They are superbly talented individuals. Sara has greater experience of the organization than anyone. She is the only person who has ever run both its editorial and technical sides. She has done that with insight, fortitude, daring, and compassion. Craig is a talented editor, litigator, and administrator who first joined us in 2006 as the (then-student) editor-in-chief of the LII Supreme Court Bulletin, and came back in 2013 as our editorial director. They have been running the place for the last year or more. I have alternately nodded approvingly and tried their patience, using the time-honored techniques of admonitory finger-wagging coupled with a certain amount of get-off-my-lawn codgering and conjuring-up of past glories. Despite this help, they are creating something that is far better and more resilient than anything I could have imagined when the three of us began planning this succession more than five years ago.  They lead a crew that is the most capable and innovative we have ever had.

My confidence in them is unlimited.  My expectations for them, and for the LII’s future, are high. I hope that in five years I will find the LII unrecognizable; that is how I will know that it’s doing what it should.  I hope that all of you will help them, as you have helped me.

Now, as to helpers: any 27-year movie is bound to have a very long list of credits at the end.  Writing this, I felt I had a choice between a list of acknowledgements and important thank-yous that did justice to far too few of you and a more accurate and equally heartfelt one that would be 700 pages long.  I remain unable to make that decision, but there is a very small gallery of people who taught me a great deal.

The first is a stagehand whose name I never caught. In the summer of 1979, I made my greatest contribution to the American theater by assisting in the removal of a show called “Got Tu Go Disco” from the stage of the Minskoff in New York (yeah, it was pretty much what you’d think, and it closed after an 8-performance run).   Colliding with another stagehand who was headed through the same loading door, the Anonymous Stagehand dropped whatever it was he was carrying and exclaimed, in at-the-top-of-his-lungs Brooklynese, “Excuse me, PLEASE!  I am just trying to WOIK heeah!” That short statement, and the sentiment behind it, accurately capture three decades of my attempts to maintain a creative, innovative space inside an academic bureaucracy.

At Cornell, I have had many enablers. Peter Martin, my original, most generous, and boldest partner in this strange enterprise; Sara Frug, who has worked the hardest and smartest the longest for the least, and done so with skill, humility, and penetrating intelligence;  Craig Newton, who saw that a species of normalcy is both possible and desirable at the LII, and has worked steadfastly toward that happy state using a skilled lawyer’s acumen, deep insight, and unfailing diplomacy. I also owe a huge debt to each and every one who has, as part of our little band, worked to make us successful, and to the many more within Cornell and a few other places who have made it possible, in ways both large and small, for us to woik heeah.  There are some people important to my own professional and personal development that most of you are unlikely to know: Ron Socciarelli, Bill Warfel, Frank Torok, Tom Blandford, Chris Locke, Pat Nefos, Merle Kessler, Howard Stein, and Rob Orchard all showed me, either through teaching or example, how to do many of the things that I do to make it possible for me and others to do the things that are important to do.

Finally, there is Lenny Simons, prop man for the Miami Opera. Lenny did not suffer fools gladly. His review of my best efforts:

“Kid.”

(slow head shake)

“Kid.”

(another, slower head shake)

“Kid, you’d look good working for Flugle Brothers Dog and Pony Circus.”

(ominous pause)

“And I’m puttin’ in a call to Colonel Flugle RIGHT NOW.”     

Almost forty years later, I’m still waiting for the Colonel to call back.  In the meantime, there are tons of antique tools that wait for me to revive a business that sells them, maybe build a few more things with them,  and a lot of exotic music to inflict on others.  I am looking forward to that, and to whatever else comes next.  

Some plan will doubtless present itself.

All the best,

T.

As is our custom, we close with a musical selection.