Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Summer Vacation



The blog will be taking a break through the summer semester. We look forward to posting again for our readers in the fall.

Enjoy your summer!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

More Crowdsourced Legal Research -- Mootus

A couple of weeks ago I discovered Casetext, a crowdsourced legal research website and wrote a blog post on the platform. The use of crowdsourcing, for what is normally a solitary pursuit, changes legal research into a more collective, collaborative process. Intriguing!

Mootus approaches the process very differently from Casetext, which uses crowdsourcing to enhance primary law with annotations, comments, and insights from members of the legal community, adding value to the raw legal materials.

So, how does Mootus differ?

Mootus does not promote itself as a legal research resource, but as a platform for open, online legal argument. Users find open issues, cite good law, add relevant law, and vote other cites as "on point" or "off base." Users earn reputation and status through high-quality cites, arguments, quality of \ answers, and votes. Mootus creates a personalized issue library for users based on the issues the individual argues, follows, and posts.


Isn't this how legal work is approached--around issues, which lawyers answer by citing to recognized authorities such as court decisions, statutes, or regulations? These issues are the basic building blocks of legal analysis. The same is true with Mootus. Everything that happens on Mootus revolves around legal issues. Users can add new issues or answer open issues, and build portfolios of their responses to issues.


Mootus is free, but also provides a basic or premium monthly subscription if users want to add more than one new issue. With a free subscription, however, you can answer and follow issues.

Mootus is not designed for providing crowdsourced legal advice! Instead the focus is on the way lawyers work, and is attempting to improve the quality and the efficiency of their work. Hats off to Mootus for spearheading this interesting collaboration among attorneys! They built it; now let's hope they come...


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Resources for Data on American Demographic Trends

Statistics can be a powerful source of information when making a legal argument. As a law student or practitioner, you're probably aware of many of the legal resources available, but what about cold, hard data? Today's post is going to introduce you to two free, reliable, and easy-to-use resources: the Pew Research Center and American FactFinder.

The Pew Research Center is a highly regarded, nonpartisan think take whose primary objective is to take the nation's pulse on popular topics. It primarily concerns itself with information related to social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends. The Center generates its data through public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis, and other empirical social science research. To get a sense of what it offers, take a look at some recent polls: support for the death penaltydemographic trends among political partiesguilt among working fathers; and, the current pope's popularity among Americans.

Pew's website allows you to browse or search for data. It's intuitive and simple enough to navigate--good for serious research, as well as for the leisurely exploration of trending topics.



American FactFinder is a website dedicated to distributing information collected by the United States Census Bureau. This is an incredibly useful tool for the savvy social science researcher, though it's not the easiest to use, mostly because it contains a tremendous amount of data covering a range of categories. There are, in fact, four different ways to access census data: through Community Facts, which lets you find popular information quickly about a particular area; Guided Search, which gives you step-by-step instructions when you're not sure where to start; Advanced Search, which lets you explore more complex layers of data; and, the Download Center, where you can download large amounts of data.



Fortunately, there are guides available to help you with your searches.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Crowdsourced Legal Research -- Casetext

Recently, I was happy to come across a free, good-quality legal research resource that has annotated primary sources. This service is called Casetext -- a free legal research tool and online community, developed in 2013, that’s used to discover and share legal knowledge. Users can search millions of cases, statutes, and regulations annotated with comments and insights from members of the legal community. Casetext adds value to raw legal materials by encouraging users to add descriptions, tags, annotations, and documents, as well as links to secondary sources. Linking commentary to a legal database gives authors a platform to share analysis to the 250,000 people who research on Casetext monthly.


















Casetext has developed community pages based on practice areas -- an online meeting place for lawyers with similar interests to share knowledge. The interactive platform lets users contribute analysis, meet colleagues, and interact with others in their field. Users simply click on a community page to take part in the dialogue. Other users can vote up or down on these additions, write a response, or share through social networks.

With these communities, Casetext has the ability to aggregate millions of legal articles that appear on law firm websites and law professor blogs. Then, Casetext matches the commentary to relevant primary materials in the Casetext database. Attorneys can incorporate their current law firm blogs onto Casetext’s platform, and automatically push posts to Casetext. Attorneys practicing in particular areas, can receive alerts whenever a post relates to their interests. Within the Casetext communities, users can review the profiles of the attorneys who post content to get an idea of the source of information.

So, sounds like a win/win situation...good for the researcher and good for the contributing attorney in building his/her reputation. With the prevalence of the use of social media, attorneys need a presence out there. However, the American Bar Association’s 2014 TechReport found that only 10% of attorneys have blogs, and they frequently miss their intended audience. Effective blogging can result in new clients or referrals, so using a tool like Casetext can help attorneys reach new and relevant audiences.

I must say I like the philosophy of the Casetext team -- attorneys with experience in law firms, government, nonprofits, and academia; along with engineers from places like Google and IBM -- all committed to connecting the legal community through making the law more understandable.

Casetext just might be an answer to a major social justice problem -- that accessing law can be costly and difficult to understand. The tool is attempting to change the way attorneys interact with each other, and the way the public interacts with legal information. Time will tell!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Congress.gov and Treaties

As many people involved in legal research know, Thomas.gov morphed into Congress.gov beginning in September 2012. Since that time, the Library of Congress (“LOC”) has transferred over the following databases to the new location: Legislation, the Congressional Record, Committee Reports and Nominations. In late March, the LOC added another database, and perhaps this is one that you would not normally connect with Congress.gov – Treaty Documents.


In exploring this most recent addition to Congress.Gov, I took the time to poke around in the links provided. I liked that the site links to other Treaty Resources on the Senate’s page. Under the link “how to research treaties,” the Senate site reminds us that: “In the United States, the word ‘treaty’ is reserved for an agreement that is made ‘by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate’ (Article II, section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution). When the Senate considers a treaty, it may approve it as written, approve it with conditions, reject and return it, or prevent its entry into force by withholding approval. The Senate historically has given its unconditional advice and consent to the vast majority of treaties submitted to it. International agreements not submitted to the Senate are known as “executive agreements” in the United States, but they are considered treaties and therefore binding under international law.”

It never hurts to be reminded about these things!

Back at the Congress.Gov Treaties page, it is further explained that treaties are referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where they may be considered and reported, and that the Senate can consider a treaty on the floor under similar procedures used for legislation. This last piece of information is useful because it can inform the way one searches for a treaty. As for the coverage available on Congress.gov: “(t)reaty documents are available … for all treaties submitted to the Senate since the 94th Congress (1975-1976). Treaties submitted prior to the 94th Congress are included if they were pending in 1975. One thing that you can use Congress.gov is to track treaties through the Senate. Unlike bills, which die at the end of a Congress if they have not received final disposition, treaties remain in the Committee on Foreign Relations until the Senate has completed action by agreeing to the resolution of advice and consent to ratification or by returning the treaty document to the President.

Also unknown to me, “since the 97th Congress [1981-1982], treaty numbers use the Congress and a sequential number, such as 106-13. Prior to the 97th Congress, treaty numbers used a letter, the Congress and session numbers: Ex. B, 96th Congress, 2nd Session.” Now, I am unsure at this point whether the sequential numbering system now in effect starts with “1” for the first treaty, or whether the treaty just takes its place in the normal numbering process. Any answers out there?

There are several ways to search for a treaty. The site permits one to search by treaty number and by search terms if one doesn’t happen to know the number. For example, on the opening page of Congress.gov, use the drop down menu to pull up the document category “Treaty Documents,” and enter search terms. I tried “dolphins” and got back “Convention Strengthening Inter-American Tuna Commission.” The first or summary record for this treaty gives information such as the date received from the President and the latest Senate action. Clicking into the hyperlink brings you to the overview page, a more thorough record that includes not only all actions taken by the Senate in considering the treaty, but also an Executive Report. That could be a helpful find since in this particular instance, the Report from the Foreign Relations Committee gives the purpose and background of the Treaty, and refers to testimony given during the review process, inter alia. From the overview page you have access to five tabs covering actions, text-resolution of ratification, text-treaty document (can include the transmittal letter from the President or Secretary of State), amendments and the "more info" tab.

I think you will agree that this is a valuable addition to Congress.gov, and one worth remembering when next you are looking for a treaty.