Monday, November 30, 2009

Life's a Beach (So Read the Fine Print)

Over the holiday weekend, a CNN affiliate investigated growing consumer complaints about At The Beach, Inc., an area tanning salon chain with some pretty stringent member agreements. Customers claim that they were duped into signing virtually-unbreakable two-year contracts, and then burned by the fine print when attempting to cancel their accounts. Although most—including the news station’s undercover reporter—were assured by friendly employees that the contracts could be canceled “at any time,” consumers say they were not informed of the requirement to either “buy out” 50% of the remaining time on their contracts, or to prove that they had moved at least 25 miles away from the closest location in order to stop the automatic monthly billing.

Is your inner lawyer feeling a distinct lack of sympathy for those who signed without reading? As the news video (5:49) shows, even seasoned attorneys can get caught in a contract trap: interview subject Kevin Lanoha is corporate counsel at Qwest, and received a J.D. from Cornell in 1994.

So, how can consumers better protect themselves, especially during the holiday shopping season? The Goodson Blogson has compiled some tips.
  1. Always read the fine print. Of course it sounds obvious, but it could have saved many At The Beach customers a major financial headache. Whether it’s a tanning membership, cell phone plan, apartment lease, or mortgage, take the time to ensure that you understand what you’re signing. Beware the distractingly chatty employee who attempts to summarize the contract for you—as the tanning salon customers learned the hard way, contradictory verbal promises will likely not help in a later dispute over the contract terms.
  2. Investigate before you buy. Customers who check out businesses and charities with their local Better Business Bureau can get a sense of potential problems with the organization. (For example, regional Better Business Bureaus graded At The Beach locations anywhere from D-minus to F.) For products, comparison-shop at Consumer Reports for objective discussions of particular brands and models.
  3. Make credit your plastic of choice. While debt gurus like Suze Orman would prefer that you always pay in cash (to ensure you are buying only what you can afford), most shoppers will put at least some purchases on plastic. Debit cards are tempting since, in theory, fear of hefty overdraft fees should prevent shoppers from spending more than they can actually afford. But Consumer Reports notes that in the event of disputed transactions, consumers have far more protection when using credit than debit.
  4. Bone up on online security. The Monday after Thanksgiving is known as “Cyber Monday” for the dramatic spike in online shopping. OnGuard Online, a multi-agency federal government site devoted to Internet security, provides tips for safe online shopping.
  5. Complain like a pro. Even the best of us get burned occasionally. If you have a negative experience, follow the steps outlined in the American Bar Association’s site: After attempting to work out the issue directly with the merchant, contact your local Better Business Bureau and/or the state Attorney General’s office for further investigation.
Do you have a consumer horror story to share? Sound off in the comments.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pardon That Turkey

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama will grant a “pardon” to two otherwise-doomed Thanksgiving turkeys, Courage and Carolina (official video preview). These Princeton, NC natives (story at WRAL) will be honored in a ceremony on the White House lawn before boarding a plane to California, where Courage will serve as honorary grand marshal for Disney’s Thanksgiving Parade. (Carolina, as the Alternate National Turkey, will be ready to step in should Courage be unable to perform his duties.) Following the parade, the pair will settle into a stuffing-free life at Disneyland’s Frontierland theme park.

The WRAL article and many other news sources credit the annual Thanksgiving tradition as originating with President Harry Truman in 1947. However, the popular myth-busting website provides a detailed analysis of the annual turkey pardon, tracing the tradition back only to President George H.W. Bush in 1989. (Anecdotal stories involving Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan do not pass muster as the “official” source of the annual tradition.)

For information on non-poultry presidential pardons, try the Duke Libraries’ catalog with a subject keyword search for “Pardon—United States”. You’ll find recent works like Jeffrey Crouch’s The Presidential Pardon Power (KF9695 .C76 2009) and historical publications like 1941’s The Pardoning Power of the President (KF5053 .H84). In addition, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which assists the President in reviewing pardons in federal criminal cases, includes clemency statistics back to 1900 as well as recipient details organized by administration since 1989. (And no, the turkeys are not included.)

The Goodson Blogson wishes its readers a happy and safe Thanksgiving break!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Google Scholar Adds Free Legal Content

The blogosphere was abuzz this morning about Google Scholar’s quiet addition of federal case law, state case law, and legal journal articles to its already-large full-text index of academic journal literature. Official details remain sketchy, but it appears that the legal content includes Supreme Court case law back to volume 1 of the U.S. Reports, federal appellate cases back to the 1920s, and state cases back to the 1950s. Law journal literature is also included.

So you think Lexis and Westlaw are now yesterday’s news? Well, not so fast. Gone is the precision searching of Terms & Connectors-- search results are closer to Natural Language, and in some cases maybe not even that sophisticated. There also seems little opportunity to refine search results which are too broad, making Google Scholar perhaps better suited to retrieving known citations than attempting to retrieve a useful list of all the relevant cases on a particular topic.

Like much of the social science literature indexed through Google Scholar, researchers may hit a “pay wall” when trying to retrieve the full text of articles. Let’s say you were searching for Brandeis and Warren’s seminal 1890 Harvard Law Review article, “The Right to Privacy.” Your search results present a few options. The first result links to “”—part of the HeinOnline database to which Duke subscribes. If you are searching Google Scholar on a university computer, no problem—the database will recognize you as a HeinOnline subscriber and give you a PDF of the article straight from the pages of the law review. But if you are researching from off-campus, you will most likely see a screen asking for a password, since HeinOnline (and other pay databases) will not recognize your computer as being affiliated with Duke University. Other Scholar results link to free versions of the Brandeis article posted around the web, but they are not page-image scans like HeinOnline’s, and may not provide accurate star paging. Caveat lector.

(Side note: if you ever receive prompts to pay for any article through a database, try retrieving the journal title through the libraries’ Online Full-Text Journals list; you might also check the libraries' catalog to see if print copies are available. Linking to databases through the libraries’ website ensures that you will be recognized as a Duke user, and you should receive access to any content to which the university subscribes.)

What seems most useful about the legal journal index, then, is the “Cited By” feature, a cruder version of Shepard’s and KeyCite which links articles and cases to later articles/cases which cited the earlier publications. However, the “Cited By” results appear to be displayed only by the later documents’ own influence (i.e., the most-cited results themselves appear at the top). This makes sorting through subsequent citations difficult for influential documents like Brandeis (cited nearly 4000 times).

Case law results include “star paging”, hyperlinks to other cases which are cited in the opinion, and a “How Cited” tab which works similarly to the “Cited by” feature for articles. Attempting to retrieve cases on a particular topic can get overwhelming—use the Advanced Scholar Search to narrow your jurisdictions if you are only interested in a particular state.

Google is undoubtedly working to refine the search process, so comparison-shop your searches as the new feature develops. For additional sources of free case law, check out the library's guide to Legal Research on the Web, which will be updated to include Google Scholar once the scope of the content becomes clearer.

For extensive discussion of Google Scholar’s new legal search features and content, check out these blog posts:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Belly Up to the Bar Journals

Cite-checkers, rejoice: HeinOnline has added an online archive of more than 50 state and regional bar association journals. The library receives many of these titles in print, but maintains the archive in microfiche rather than print (meaning that generally only the current year is available in the Periodicals collection, and researchers must access older issues in the Microforms Room).

To access the bar journals, choose “Bar Journal Library” from the HeinOnline start page (a link to HeinOnline will also be included in the library’s catalog and e-journal records for an individual journal title). All bar journals date back to volume 1, and are available in PDF. The title list includes ABA Journal as well as state bar association publications (Alaska Bar Rag, New York State Bar Association Journal), city bar journals (Boston Bar Journal, Los Angeles Lawyer), and even international publications (International Bar Journal).

Also of interest is the addition of the Duke Bar Association Journal, which was published at the Law School from 1933-1942. HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library has long included the archive of the current Duke Law Journal (1959-present) and its previous title, the Duke Bar Journal (1951-1958), but had omitted the earlier DBA publication. Want to see Richard Nixon’s 1936 student note, “Application of the Inherent Danger Doctrine to Servants of Negligent Independent Contractors”? (If you're on a campus computer, click here; off-campus: log in to HeinOnline and retrieve the citation 4 Duke Bar Ass’n J. 115.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Finding Political Cartoons

Political cartoons do more than amuse (and occasionally confuse)—they can express, as well as shape, public opinion. Most American high school students learn of the medium’s historical influence through the story of William "Boss" Tweed, a 19th-century New York City politician who was assailed for corruption in a series of Harper’s Weekly cartoons (in addition to a number of articles). Furious over the cartoons’ persuasive power, Tweed reportedly said, “I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don't know how to read. But they can't help seeing them damned pictures!”

There are a variety of reasons why you might search for a particular political cartoon—from as complex as exploring the development of public opinion on a particular topic over time, to as simple as jazzing up a presentation. But where do you go when search engines fail? The Goodson Blogson has some ideas.

Published collections of cartoons from a particular time period or by a particular artist may be available. In the Duke University Libraries catalog, try a subject keyword search for [topic] and cartoons, e.g. civil war and cartoons.

Collections by a particular artist may also be available in the libraries’ catalog or on the web. For example, the Library of Congress maintains an online archive of former Washington Post cartoonist Herblock. The Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum provides exquisite digital exhibitions and a searchable database of selected images.

Many modern political cartoonists are included in Daryl Cagle's Professional Cartoonist Index, which offers a searchable database from 1998-present. Search results include excellent indexing information (i.e., when and where a cartoon originally appeared). Other web sources for more recent cartoons include Cartoon Stock and the Creators Syndicate Editorial Cartoons section.

For historical political cartoons from the major US newspapers, try searching ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Dates vary by individual newspaper, but generally PDFs are available from the mid-1800s to the late 1980s. In the Advanced Search, choose "Document Type" from one of the drop-down boxes and select "Editorial Cartoon" from the browseable list linked to the right. The subject indexing is minimal, so use search terms sparingly! (Most terms will appear in the cartoon captions.) ProQuest provides excellent indexing of when/where the cartoons appeared, and PDF copies for most (some appear as "blocked by copyright" and must be retrieved on the microfilm edition).

The library may also have access to historical full text of other publications; Ask a Librarian if you aren’t sure how to access the archives of a particular publication. For example, Duke researchers can access the famous Boss Tweed cartoons from Harper’s Weekly at (Interesting postscript: As it turned out, Boss Tweed’s concern about the power of the Harper’s Weekly cartoons was well-warranted. After escaping from a New York debtor’s prison following two corruption trials, Tweed fled the country for Spain, where he was eventually apprehended by Spanish authorities and returned to the United States. Allegedly, Tweed was recognized in Spain from his depiction in “them damned pictures.”)