Thursday, January 19, 2017

Inauguration 1. A formal ceremony inducting someone into office ... 3. The formal commencement of a period of time or course of action. Black's Law Dictionary, 10th ed.



Inauguration 2017 has been fraught with so many side issues (Women’s Marches, No Legal Sea Food Chowder, Girl Scouts Marching, Rockettes Kicking or Not) – it dawned on me that I know nothing about the underpinnings of this event … so I thought I would do some research!

Before I describe some inauguration research sources, however, here are some basic inauguration facts. First of all, it turns out that the only Constitutional requirement for the inauguration is that the president-elect take an oath or affirmation before that person can enter on the Execution of the office of the presidency. The wording of that oath is specified in Article II, Section One, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution:  "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

The Constitution does not specify who shall administer the oath to the president, but by and large that role has been performed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Interestingly, George Washington was sworn in by Robert Livingston, an eminent New York lawyer, a member of the Committee of Five who drafted the Declaration of Independence, and considered a Founding Father of the United States, but not a member of the Court.

As for the day of the inauguration, that day was not established as January 20 until 1933 with the passage of the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted on January 23 of that year. The previous inauguration date was March 4th and was set by the Congress of the Confederation in September 1788 after the necessary nine states had ratified the Constitution.

And now for the research component of this post:  The Library of Congress has a comprehensive digital collection (Washington to Obama) of inauguration material including diaries and letters written by presidents and those who witnessed the inaugurations, handwritten drafts of inaugural addresses, broadsides, inaugural tickets and programs, prints, photographs, and sheet music. Unbelievable that we can see George Washington’s handwritten inaugural speech. Check out the link for President Obama, including his 2009 official portrait painted when he still had dark hair.
One can also view video of inauguration addresses from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to President Barrack Obama at this C-SPAN link. Recent events have made me nostalgic – it was interesting to look back at previous January 20ths. 

Since 1901, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inauguration Ceremonies has plied the laboring oar in putting together the day’s events. That Committee has put together this website that chronicles inaugurations going back to 1901 and the site collects a fascinating assortment of memorabilia including prayers said, hymns sung, the day’s weather and first facts – for example, Truman’s inauguration in 1949 was the first inauguration televised.   

For an in-depth look at past inaugurations, consult Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President, 1789-2013 by Jim Bendat, author of the most recent Washington Post’s Five Myths column available here.

Enjoy the day!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Blockchain

What is blockchain?

Blockchain provides a way for multiple individuals who may not trust each other to work on the same ledger or document without a trusted intermediary (such as a bank in the case of crypto-currency). In more technical terms, a blockchain is a way to maintain the integrity of information on a distributed decentralized network. Blockchains work by utilizing software which generates a “cryptographic hash”* from the information stored in a network. Each time the information is changed anywhere on the network the blockchain software generates a new block from the new information, a timestamp, and the previous block’s hash. These new blocks are then added to the previous blocks to create a chain, thus a blockchain. The updated blockchain is then sent to all the computers on the network. Since the majority of the computers on the network have to agree on the values contained in the blockchain** unauthorized changes to the information become more difficult with each block added to the chain.  For example, Bitcoin, an entirely online form of crypto-currency, was created using the first blockchain and has never been hacked.*** The Bitcoin blockchain has been running since January 2009.

How does blockchain relate to law?

Some have labeled blockchain as next year’s disruptive technology in the field of law. For instance, Ethereum, another crypto-currency created by a former Bitcoin programmer, includes a programing language designed to create “smart contracts.” Smart contracts are computer programs which act as agreements. Since the negotiation and execution of such contracts can be entirely electronic and without intermediaries, the transactional cost of such contracts can be much lower than traditional contracts.
Smart contracts can also be self-executing. For instance, farmers could buy crop insurance using such a system to cover them in the event of crop failure. The insurance would pay if the temperature fell below freezing between a particular range of dates. The smart contract program would monitor the temperature via the internet and pay automatically if the conditions were met according to the terms of the policy—without further intervention from either the insured or the insurer.

Other legal aspects

Blockchain technology development has been mostly done using open source practices. However, this may change since big businesses are realizing the potential of this technology. Since 2013 about 1.4 billion dollars have been invested and over 2,500 patents filed for blockchain technologies. It remains to be seen how open blockchain technology will remain.

Conclusion

This blog post only outlines a few plausible uses of blockchain technology. Other uses being developed include real estate registry, medical records, financial services, and countless others. One thing is certain though, this technology will have widespread impact on business transactions and thus on the practice of law.
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* A cryptographic hash is a string of text with a set number of characters produced by feeding information to a computer program.  If the exact same information is fed into the same hash producing program in different locations the resulting hash strings should be identical.
** The longest blockchain will be chosen in the event of inconsistent information.
*** While this is true of Bitcoin’s blockchain itself, some Bitcoin related businesses have been hacked see e.g. http://money.cnn.com/2016/08/03/technology/bitcoin-exchange-bitfinex-hacked/