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On April 27, the Supreme Court handed a significant win to advocates for Free Law by holding that the “government edicts doctrine” forbade legislatures from claiming copyright in any materials they produce in the course of their official duties, whether or not the materials in question carry “the force of law.” Writing for a 5-4 majority, Chief Justice Roberts explained, “The animating principle behind this rule is that no one can own the law. Every citizen is presumed to know the law, and it needs no argument to show that all should have free access to its contents.” (internal quotation and punctuation omitted). 

Now, where have you heard that before? Maybe here? How about here? Or, perhaps, here?  

So, that’s the “Good Thing.” Now, what about this “Odd Thing” we mentioned in the headline? In case you missed it, the Court postponed its March and April calendars several weeks ago. Then it announced it would hear oral arguments in about half of those cases in May via telephonic hearing. (The other half, it seems, will wait until the new term begins this Fall.) C-SPAN will have access to the live audio feed and has promised public access.  

If we hear more, we’ll let you know.

Covid19 virus microscope picture

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

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

Dear Friends of the LII,

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,

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

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

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

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

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

The LII Team

Welcome back to our semi-regular “Anatomy of a Traffic Spike” feature. For the uninitiated, we like to examine and share instances where current events cause something to trend on our pages for unforeseen (and usually unforeseeable reasons). We use these occasions to study how people interact with the law in general and our website in particular. And these moments confirm the importance of our commitment to aiding public discourse by making primary source materials easily available to the public.  

This time, we look to the U.S. Code and specifically to 18 USC 2071. Let’s see if you can guess what it addresses from only the following clues:

  • In the 12 months prior to February of 2020, the most pageviews in a single day that code section had ever received on our website was 103.
  • Only 5 times in that same 12 month period had there been more than 50 pageviews in a single day.
  • In fact, the page had been viewed only 7,314 times during that 12-month span.
  • On Tuesday, February 4th, however, a record 315 people viewed the page a total of 367 times. Almost all of these pageviews occurred after 10:00pm Eastern Standard Time.     

                   (This is your first big hint.)

  • The very next day the page saw 207,657 visits. It helped make February 5, 2020 our busiest single day in terms of total sessions since Google Analytics came on the scene many years ago to help us track such things. (Legend has it that since we were the only place to have Bush v. Gore online when it was handed down on December 12, 2000, the site averaged more than 5000 hits per minute for 14 hours.)
  • Traffic continued to come to that page at a steady clip. Almost 100,000 people viewed it the next day, and more than 25,000 the day after that. (Remember, this is a page that had only hit triple digits once in the previous year.) Even as we write this, traffic to that page still hasn’t returned to normal. February 17–almost two weeks after the “event”–saw more than enough hits to triple the previous “record” of 103 pageviews.    
  • We couldn’t find a single contemporaneous news report linking to 18 USC 2071 on our site. Over 99% of its traffic has come from search engines (like Google or Bing) and links in social media posts (such as Facebook and Twitter).  

                    (This would be your second big hint if you looked at this stuff the way we do!)

Okay, so far that’s all pretty vague for those of you trying to guess. Here is some important context you’ll find helpful:

  • Prominent fact-checking websites felt the need to address the specific event that gave rise to this spike: and,
  • The 2020 State of the Union address began at 9:00pm EST on February 4th and ran for about an hour and eighteen minutes.  (see first big hint above)

Got it yet? Well, here’s a hyperlink:  https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2071

If you’re still not clear on exactly what folks were looking up online, check out the aforementioned fact-checking articles on PolitiFact and Snopes here!

The Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School enjoyed a very successful year in 2019.  Here are some numbers that tell the story of our success and some context from the many folks who use and support our work:

33,000,347 people used our website and viewed 151,553,871 pages of content, including:

53,885,373 pages of the CFR, which let them run their businesses, do their jobs, or just live their lives like the recent donor who told us: “I use the Code of Federal Regulations to ensure I am meeting the regulatory requirements when performing engineering functions.”  

49,866,781 pages of the US Code in order to help themselves and their clients, like the former nonprofit and governmental attorney who told us that “at both jobs, our legal department budgets were limited and we had limited access to commercial legal research tools.”  

–  12,162,296 pages of various federal rules, used primarily by lawyers, litigants, and law students, like the one who recently left us a note saying, “Thanks for getting me through evidence class!”  

– 11,509,034 pages of Wex, where they found plain-language, viewpoint-neutral explanations of legal issues and concepts such as this visitor who left us a comment saying she thinks “it is very important for people to have easy access to a website that explains the law in layman’s terms….” 

5,907,626 pages of the United States Constitution; because, as one donor put it, “Too many people rely on news reports that reference the Constitution and statutes, but they don’t read the full text.”  

4,613,666 pages of Supreme Court opinions and Bulletin Previews, which was the destination of a professor who told us, “I am a Constitutional Law professor and I’m constantly researching case law.  LII is one of many resources I look to for accurate information.

1,581,297 views of the Annotated Constitution in its first full year since we re-launched it on Constitution Day, 2018.  In November, we received a note from an admirer who told us, “I have found the Legal Information Institute to be a very useful research tool. I frequently access the LII Constitution Annotated for detailed and reliable information.” 

132,000 dollars went into the Tom Bruce Legal Information Innovation Fellowship Fund.  Once it reaches $400,000, that endowed fund will pay for a Fellow to spend the summer in Ithaca each year advancing the state of the art in legal informatics and related fields.

240 countries and territories sent us visitors in 2019, such as an attorney in Mexico who wrote to tell us of his admiration for the Constitution, or a PhD student in China who used our website to write his dissertation on bankruptcy laws.  During our campaign, we also heard from a Court-watcher in the UK, a Canadian who tells us our website has resources her local library lacks, and even a Hungarian who simply said, “I like what you do.”  

94 students from law, information science, and computer science helped us on a variety of projects in 2019.  All were either paid for their work or received course credit.  

27 years was the length of time LII Co-Founder Tom Bruce was at the controls.  He retired on July 1, 2019 after fourteen years as the LII’s solo Director.   Longtime LII employees Sara Frug and Craig Newton now serve as Co-Directors, returning the LII back to its original leadership structure of one technologist and one lawyer.    

9 full-time staff run the LII.  

  • 5 technologists
  • 1 office manager
  • 1 communications specialist
  • 1 fundraiser
  • 1 lawyer

1 mission.  Same as always.

Those are just some of the numbers that are on our minds–and some thoughts about what they mean to the people who use our site each day–that we wanted to share with you before 2020 gets too far down the road.   

As always, in the coming months we’ll be periodically sending you updates about what we’re working on, the interesting folks we’re working with, and anything else we think you might appreciate.  We’re looking forward to our best year yet at LII, and we’re grateful to have you along for the ride.

Craig & Sara

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.