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johnsflagFrom time to time, we travel to Washington DC to meet with friends, supporters, and collaborators.  Last month, Sara, Craig and I visited collaborators at 18F (the Federal team dedicated to improving government websites), the National Archives (our collaborators on the Oyez project), the Justice Department, and the House of Representatives, and some of you,  as well as with friends and helpers among the Cornell Law School’s many alumni who work in the city.   As always, we got a ton of useful suggestions about things we can do to help people find and understand the law — either new things, or things we already do that can be improved.  And it seems that the subject of law and cybersecurity is very much on everyone’s mind — that was good news, as we are planning a few special events on that theme for our 25th-year celebration in 2017.

For me, the centerpiece of the trip was a day spent at the Fourth International Conference on Legislation and Law Reform, held at the World Bank’s headquarters.  I had the honor of being the first person to speak to that group about use of online legislation by the general public.  Non-lawyers are now a majority of the users of every web site that publishes legislation (at least, of the ones that measure such things), and those who draft and publish law are beginning to take note.  For example, legislation.gov.uk and the UK Office of Parliamentary Counsel have created the “Good Law” project to make legal language easier to understand, and here at the LII we’ve done a joint study with researchers at the Australian National University to study readability of legislation.   The most gratifying part of the experience for me was that the conference organizers — who thought the topic experimental when it was proposed — are now planning future sessions on making legislation more understandable for the public.

The Puzzler

I thought it might be fun to challenge our readers with a puzzle I posed for the audience at the conference.  After all, what else do you have to think about during the holiday season?  

Here is the current, valid version of 4 USC 1:

The flag of the United States shall be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; and the union of the flag shall be forty-eight stars, white in a blue field.

That’s right. 48 stars, in the most current version of the law.  We get several e-mails each year loudly telling us just how dumb lawyers must be if they don’t know there are 50 states in the US — and they sort of have a point. There’s nothing confusing or unclear about that language — but it creates an enormous amount of confusion.

The first person to write to me with a convincing explanation of how this can possibly be good current law wins a shout-out in the next newsletter and the eternal gratitude of any number of teachers of legal research who will have a lot of fun using this in class.  Extra credit if you manage to figure out what happened to Alaska… and why someone thought all this confusion was necessary in the first place.

logoBack in June we announced our involvement in taking over control of the popular Supreme Court audio website Oyez.  We were a logical choice for Oyez because our missions of public access to the law aligned perfectly, and our affiliation with Cornell will provide both stability and notoriety for Oyez.  That June article ended with a promise to update you when we had more to  report.  Happily, that time has come.

As of December 15th, we officially became co-owners of the Oyez.org domain and website.  Though the paperwork is just now getting wrapped up, we at the LII and our partners at Justia have been operating Oyez for several months.  We spent the summer working with Oyez’s two full-time employees (as well as Professor Goldman himself, of course) to make sure we understood all the data sources, processes, and related workflows so that we could provide uninterrupted coverage of the Court when oral arguments began again in October.

One big decision we had to face early in that process was who would do the work creating the case pages for each case in the new term.  Rather than add something new on short notice for Supreme Court Bulletin students (though the substantive overlap is obvious), we approached some of the returning students at Chicago-Kent who had done the work during the previous term.  They were all thrilled to remain on the Oyez team (and to continue to get the paychecks)!    So, they’ve been busily and happily summarizing the facts of each new case when the Court grants cert and the opinions in those cases as they’ve already begun to trickle in.  If you’d like to help offset our costs in paying them to provide this public good, please consider donating.  

LII Staffer Craig Newton also recently met with employees of the National Archive in suburban Washington DC to discuss Oyez.  The Archive has been supplying audio to Oyez for several years, and this was our chance to introduce ourselves along with Justia, explain our mission, and assure them that we had every intention to keep the audio collection free and open to all.  (We learned that they are big fans of Oyez, as “something like 95%” of all people requesting Supreme Court audio from the government are satisfied when directed to the Oyez website).  

While we continue to exercise some new muscles as we work through the Court’s current term, the LII and our partners at Justia already have an eye toward improvements.  We’ll be re-branding the Oyez website with our own logos and updating the “About” pages to reflect the new management structure, expanding the selection of available blogs, transitioning the authoring of case-related content to our own students, and possibly seeking out sponsors who wish to attach their name to the Oyez project.

We hope in another six months we will have more news to share about this exciting project.

headshotKimball Bighorse chose Stanford University because its well-known Native American program draws students from many tribes.

However, he didn’t study Native Americans; he studied Symbolic Systems. That includes, he explained, “philosophic questions, natural language, and cognitive psychology.” And computers. Bighorse is now a web developer for the LII.

But his Native roots remain strong. His father is Navajo, his mother Cayuga, and he’s the oldest of four children. Bighorse and his siblings grew up in Utah, Santa Cruz California, and Albuquerque. His mother taught elementary school; his father taught high school—including computer classes.

“Our mother always told us where we were from, so it’s always been our aspiration to return here,” Bighorse said. That’s because many Native tribes are matrilineal. “Here” is the area surrounding Cayuga Lake, which once belonged to the Cayuga tribe, part of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. Two of his siblings also live in the area. His brother works for a Cayuga Nation enterprise, and one sister lives in Seneca Falls. (His oldest sister lives in Hawaii.)

Not only is Ithaca the center of his Native roots; it feels comfortable in other ways. “Being here reminds me of Berkeley. It’s a mini-Berkeley.”

“I’m here because I want to be here,” Bighorse added. “It’s a critical time for the tribe. It’s the first time we’ve needed to govern ourselves; there was always some other government. I’m a crazy activist,” he adds calmly. Bighorse played football in high school and still looks the part—which is not that of a crazy activist.

He did, however make a trip to Standing Rock, the weekend of December 3rd and 4th. “When we got out there, things were getting heated,” he said. “The camp was pretty well organized. There were a lot of different interests there, environmental activists, tribal people. The veterans were just coming in. At sundown we went up on Facebook Hill, where you could see everything; the security lights, the campfires.” (“Facebook Hill” is where the media camp was, because there’s no phone service down below.) Bighorse was there when the Army Corps of Engineers announced that they would not approve an easement to allow the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe. “We were all celebrating. It was a great moment.”

Before moving back to Cayuga territory, Bighorse worked for several Silicon-Valley startups. “My first job was for a company that recruited for hedge fund and private equity jobs. We built and maintained a technology platform to track candidates’ applications by skill set, all the way through the interview and hiring process. I did everything, including fixing problems in the middle of the night. It was a great introduction to Internet work.”

The founder of a competitor startup left to create an e-commerce company, and Bighorse joined him. “He built an audience, I built the tech. I didn’t get paid; I was part-owner of the company. We worked out of my co-founder’s bedroom. Building something from scratch was a great experience.”

Then Bighorse got married, and he said, “I needed a more stable lifestyle.” He also wanted to move back to his Cayuga Nation roots. His wife, a nurse from the state of Washington, takes care of what he calls his “two-and-a-half children:” a three-year-old girl, a two-year-old boy, and a new one expected in April. “I try and give her a break whenever I can,” he said.

Once his family was settled in Ithaca, he worked for a travel startup. “We had developers in Thailand, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and the Ukraine, all in different time zones. We had a lot of meetings at 11 p.m.” But as a father, such long hours were difficult.

Last year, he joined the LII. “If you’re doing Internet work anywhere in this area, the LII has industrial strength traffic,” he said. “It dwarfs all other Cornell Internet traffic.” Unlike his startup experience, he explained, the LII has a “legacy system.” That means the technical underpinning has been around for some time. After all, the LII was a startup back in 1992.

Because the LII does a lot with a small staff, his startup experience is helpful. “I’m used to limited resources and time, and having to prioritize,” Bighorse said. We discuss the iterative process that both writers and software engineers use. “Coding is writing,” Bighorse said. “I think of it as literature. You create a strong architecture, then you get it to work, then you do new and better iterations.”

The LII, and the Law School, offer other opportunities for Bighorse. Last fall, John Dossett, the General Counsel to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), was in residence at Cornell Law School. “He visited us in our office,” said Bighorse. “Then he gave a talk. I had lunch with him afterwards. It was great to hear from him about the law in general, and what his needs are.”

Bighorse enjoys his work with the LII. “It’s fun to re-invent something that’s been around. In a startup, you build from scratch, but there’s no one to use it. But tons of people use the LII,” said Bighorse. “My task is to reinvent it and make it better. When it started, it was the only way to read law online, but that’s no longer true. What problems aren’t we solving? What can the LII do to meet users’ needs? That’s the charge I see myself playing a role in.”

 

janet_odetsi_twum

Janet Odetsi Twum (Photo credit: Carol Clune)

Janet Odetsi-Twum, whom we met during her recent Bitner Fellowship at the Cornell Law Library, is a librarian to watch.  Educated in her native Ghana, she speaks six languages (English, French, Ga, Twi, Krobo and Ewe). Prior to her career as a librarian, she worked in a wide variety of settings and jobs.  She has taught in rural Ghana, serving as a classroom teacher as well as a teacher of English and Ga.  This gave her experience “improvis[ing] learning materials” in low resource environments.   She also worked on projects for young women living with HIV/AIDS.  

Odetsi-Twum’s interest in libraries began at an early age.  Growing up with a love of books and reading, she had a natural affinity for librarianship.  “I erroneously [thought] working in the library could afford me more books to read,” she says.

She has worked in a wide variety of libraries — children’s libraries, school libraries, academic libraries.  Children’s libraries, she says, are “full of action, creativity, and teaching”, and allowed her to build skills in working with computers and digital scholarship which she later brought to an academic setting.  At the time, internet resources for children’s libraries were not yet developed, so she worked with CD-ROMs — which, she points out, had their benefits: they involved “a one time payment, unlike with online legal resources where subscription is annual and expensive”.

Odetsi-Twum’s specific interest in working in legal libraries began from the ground up, when she started one.  A decade ago, when the school in which she was working as a librarian was accredited to teach law, she set up a law library from scratch.  

Having gained wide experience at so many types of libraries, Odetsi-Twum sought the Bitner Fellowship in order to gain experience in a library outside of Ghana. Law Library Director Femi Cadmus was quick to point out the benefit to the librarians here as well: “Cornell Law Librarians were excited to host Janet Odetsi-Twum in October.  Janet is an enthusiastic and resourceful librarian who  powers on undeterred by some of the challenges faced by her law library. She is an excellent communicator and was able to provide staff of our library with a very insightful overview of the workings of the Ghana legal system and the administration of law libraries in Ghana.”

While she continues to work as the head librarian at the Ghana School of Law, Odetsi-Twum is also currently working on an LL.B.  (In Ghana, she explains, while a law degree is helpful for a law librarian, it is not as common as it is for employees of American law school libraries.)  Even her Bitner fellowship caused her to miss a few weeks of classes — “I [had] to catch up with lessons and reading assignments for two weeks,” she says, admitting that it was “taxing”.  She notes that every class begins from the ground up: unlike library work, “the semester ends you have nothing to do with the course again”.

When starting the Ghana School of Law Library, one resource she relied upon was the LII, and she remarks on the coincidence of getting a chance to be at Cornell Law School in person. Of particular interest to us is Odetsi-Twum’s work putting Ghanaian legal information online. She sees pressing issues in open access and online presentation of legal materials: “currently the need to get government agencies as a key stakeholder in the provision of legal data generated is very important. Also the issues with copyright with regards to other companies who may be making profit out of the case law that government generate.” Her experience as a Bitner fellow has helped shape her project:  “I have learnt to focus on what is within my reach and with time I will get all others to join in the provision of legal resources online. As a first step, I intend to harvest and organize the scattered bits of pertinent legal data put online by other organizations in Ghana.” We can’t wait to see what she does next.

lincolnFrom the point of view of an analytics wonk, elections are an interesting time at the LII.  We see a lot of people’s political and social concerns reflected in the materials that they look at on the site.  Here’s a quick rundown of some of the more interesting things that popped up during this election season:

  • The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. We first noticed a real run on the 14th Amendment during the first GOP primary debate back in August of last year .  During the middle 20 minutes of the one-hour debate, we clocked something like half million hits on the Second and Fourteenth Amendments.  Naturally, people were reading the Second Amendment in the context of gun control.  The Fourteenth pops up in many discussions — it is fundamental to recent controversies over Obamacare, immigration, and many other high-profile issues.
  • 18 USC 879, Threats against Former Presidents and certain other persons. “Certain other persons”, in this case, includes both Presidential candidates and the family of former Presidents.  In the wake of Mr. Trump’s suggestion that “Second Amendment people” could take things into their own hands in the event that Hillary Clinton were to be elected President, we clocked nearly 125,000 visits to this Federal statute in two days.  A second, much smaller blip occurred in mid-October.
  • 18 USC 793, Gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information.  We got another 125,000-visit bump on July 5 and 6, in the wake of FBI director James Comey’s announcement that he would not be recommending that criminal charges be filed against Hillary Clinton over her use of a private e-mail server. Interestingly, people seemed to spend nearly three times as long as usual reading the page, indicating a serious attempt to understand the meaning of a statute that is by all accounts difficult to read and understand.
  • 18 USC 2071, Concealment, removal, or mutilation generally.  This one has popped up at intervals throughout the campaign season, probably because of claims made by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and various Washington DC think tanks.  Each claimed that the disqualification provision in 18 USC 2071 would bar Clinton from becoming President if she were found guilty of violating federal document concealment and destruction laws.  Mukasey has since reversed his position.   The statute has been viewed nearly 200,000 times in the last six months.
  • 18 USC 700, the Flag Desecration Act. This one has a habit of popping up when flags are burned or otherwise mistreated during protests. It’s been viewed at a fairly steady pace throughout the election season, with a small spike occurring in mid-April.
  • 18 USC 594, Intimidation of Voters.  This one peaked from October 14-16, apparently as a reaction to reports of ominous flyers distributed to Democratic voters in Albequerque, New Mexico.

Given all this, you might predict that statutes related to immigration, Social Security, and other issues that generate heated discussion during election season might also appear in the list, but they don’t.  Perhaps that’s because they generate heated discussion all the time.   But it may be that, during the most bitter election campaign in decades, substance matters less than criminalizing  the behavior of your opponent.

Although we publish legal information and operate from within a law school, people working in non-legal professions comprise most of our online audience (We don’t use cookies to track website visitors’ behavior, but we can infer some things about audience demographics from traffic chronology and Internet Protocol Network data). Despite the makeup of our audience, the majority of feedback and support we receive comes from those practicing, using or studying law on a frequent, if not daily, basis. We’re glad to serve those with legal training, but we also strive to better understand and serve those with no training.

So, when Michael Schneider, an LII donor and the Managing Member at Noodle House Studios LLC, mentioned why he came to our site and supported our work, it caught our attention. As the production company’s Managing Member and father to its founder Kurt Hugo Schneider, Michael Schneider is someone from our non-law audience who needs access to online legal information to be successful at work.

After working for years in direct marketing, banking and real estate, Schneider’s career took an interesting turn in 2009. His son, Kurt, was creating music videos with a friend from school, Sam Tsui, and had reached some success in his first year of production. Before they embarked upon a skunkworks shoot on a particularly snowy day in Connecticut, Schneider casually mentioned to his son that he really should have liability insurance and operate under a company. As he wondered about his liability in the operation, he decided to help his son pull together the necessary components of a business.

Although his protective instincts prompted his involvement, Schneider says he also based his decision to help Kurt upon basic business principles. “You don’t really make decisions, exactly. You just sort of follow the way you are drawn as a result of business opportunity and clients.”

That approach panned out for Noodle House Studios, which has since produced hundreds of unique video song covers and original works. Kurt’s YouTube channel alone has racked up over 7.5 million subscribers and nearly 2 billion video views. When Kurt moved to the west coast to do more creating, his father stayed home to continue managing all business, legal and operational matters.

Schneider only went full-time with Noodle House around a year ago, when he let his broker license lapse. His prior careers had exposed him to a few intensely regulated legal areas of commerce: The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), Truth in Lending Act (TILA), and Unfair or Deceptive Acts or Practices (UDAP) in relation to his work in direct marketing; regulation laws associated with his position in Default Services at a bank; and property law, which he absorbed while working in real estate secured lending.

Early in their collaboration, a music company threatened to sue Noodle House. “There is something incredibly motivating about receiving a credible threat of litigation in an area when you really don’t understand the first thing about it,” says Schneider. With one Google Search he found the LII, and he proceeded to invest “hundreds of hours understanding copyright law as it applies and relates to music and the digital arena.” He feels that the only way to understand the basic underlying legal issues in music is to read the statutes and judicial decisions. “You simply have to open up copyright law and read it, and then read the reasoning of court rulings.”

Ultimately, the threat was resolved, but Schneider’s research on our website gave him a pretty strong background in legal issues affecting music, and he still references the LII on a regular basis. “Music is an intensely hard area, in terms of the legal issues. And it’s an area that has so many complications that are specific to music.”

With new media in YouTube, he says, things get even more complicated because of three complex assets: “Composition, which is part of the song recording, which is part of the video. Each asset has separate rights. In order to manage a music business which has audio/visual content and is being distributed digitally, you must understand the underlying issues.”

Amid that complexity, Schneider praises YouTube’s Content ID system for giving creators “a pretty sound basis for managing their assets and managing their copyrights.” And he has praise for the LII, too: “Just as YouTube allows a creator to disintermediate more traditional companies such as labels, sites such as yours allow a business to disintermediate other more traditional players such as consultants.”

Early on, Schneider’s ignorance led to a potential legal conflict. Since accessing legal information at our site, his improved knowledge of underlying legal issues has allowed Noodle House Studios to form good relationships with major companies like Sony, Universal, Warner, Disney, Nickelodeon in the last 3 years. It also has allowed them to maintain a “pretty lean operation” by managing its own assets.

When asked what to expect next from Noodle House, Schneider says “the plan is to keep doing what we’re doing, only do more of it and do it better and with more exposure. I started this because I wanted to protect my son. Now it’s about running a successful business.”

Today at SCOTUS -- 1/14/14

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Jan 142014

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments about (1) the powers of bankruptcy courts; (2) the taxation of unemployment benefits; and (3) federal property statutes:

(1)  Executive Benefits Insurance Agency v. Arkin [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-1200];

  • Does Article III of the Constitution permit bankruptcy courts to enter final judgments in “core” proceedings as defined in 28 U.S.C. § 157(b)? If not, can bankruptcy courts exercise jurisdiction over litigants through their “implied consent”?

(2)  US v. Quality Stores, Inc.s [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-1408]

  • Are supplemental unemployment benefits paid to laid-off employees considered “wages” under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), and therefore taxable as income?

(3)  Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. US [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-1173]

  • Does the United States have a reversionary interest in a railroad right-of-way created by the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875 after the federal government granted the lands underlying the right-of-way to a private party?

Today at SCOTUS -- 1/13/2014

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Jan 132014

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments in cases about (1) recess appointments and (2) misbehaving debtors in bankruptcy:

(1)  NLRB v Noel Canning [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-1281]

  • Can the President exercise the recess-appointment power during a recess while the Senate is still in session? Can the President exercise this power when the Senate convenes every three days in pro forma sessions?
  • Can the President use the recess-appointment power to fill any vacancy that exists during a recess, or only to fill those vacancies that arose during the recess?

(2) Law v. Siegel [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-5196]

  • If a debtor in bankruptcy commits misconduct during bankruptcy proceedings, can statutory exemptions previously granted to him be revoked as punishment for his misbehavior?

Today at SCOTUS - 12/11/2013

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Dec 112013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments in a cases about (1) self-incrimination in a capital punishment trial and (2) the statue of limitations for child custody petitions under the Hague Convention:

(1)  White v. Woodall [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-794]

  • Does a trial court’s rejection of a non-testifying defendant’s request for a no-adverse-influence instruction during the sentencing phase of a capital punishment trial violate that defendant’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when the defendant has pled guilty to all of the alleged crimes and aggravating circumstances?

(2) Lozano v. Alvarez  [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-820]

  • Can a district court considering a petition under the Hague Convention for the return of an abducted child to the child’s home country toll the running of the one-year filing deadline when the abducting parent has concealed the whereabouts of the child from the other parent?

Today at SCOTUS - 12/10/2013

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Dec 102013

Today, the Supreme Court hears arguments in a cases about (1) EPA rulemaking and (2) the Child Status Protection Act :

(1)  EPA v. EME Homer City Generation [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-1182]

  • Did the EPA permissibly interpret the phrase “contribute significantly” when it balanced achievable emission reduction levels against the cost of achieving such emission reductions?
  • Can states wait for the EPA to adopt a rule quantifying each state’s “good neighbor” obligations before they adopt a state implementation plan prohibiting emissions that “contribute significantly” to other states’ pollution problems?

(2)  Mayorkas v. Cuellar de Osoria [see our preview at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/12-930]

  • Does the Child Status Protection Act grant relief to an alien who qualifies as a child derivative beneficiary at the time a visa petition is initially filed, but who reaches age 21 (“ages out”) when the visa becomes available to the principal beneficiary?