Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Making Sense of the Census

April 1 is Census Day, the Census Bureau’s target date for returning your 2010 Census forms. In case you missed the government’s aggressive marketing campaign (including a giant inflatable form outside D.C.’s Union Station and a star-studded Super Bowl ad directed by Christopher Guest), the U.S. Census is conducted every ten years to count residents; its results help reallocate federal funding based on population (and can even affect the number of your state’s representatives in Congress).

After April 1, Census takers will begin to canvas neighborhoods in order to follow up with citizens who did not return their paper forms. Based on the current Mail Participation Rate, they will be busy: the current national participation rate is 50% (as of this writing, Durham County checks in just under the national average, at 47%). The Census website offers advice about census-taker visits, including tips to ensure that the visitor is a legitimate federal employee (e.g., the census taker will never ask to enter your home).

What if you wanted to participate, but never received your form in the mail? Contact the Telephone Questionnaire Assistance center in order to obtain a questionnaire. The number for service in English is 1-866-872-6868; help is also available in Chinese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese. The phone lines will be open each day from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. until July 30, 2010.

Whether you view the Census as an important democratic exercise or a minor personal inconvenience (or both), note that it is the law of the land: the U.S. Constitution describes basic Census procedures in Article 1, Section 2, and Title 13 of the U.S. Code expands upon the responsibilities of the Census Bureau and collection procedures. Census Bureau regulations can also be found in Title 15 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The Census website even includes an introduction to key case law on its guide to Census in the Constitution.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Free & Low-Cost Legal Research

Last week’s Research Madness workshop provided an overview of several free & low-cost alternatives to using LexisNexis and Westlaw for legal research. Law students have access to a number of the most popular low-cost research alternatives, including LoisLaw (see Reference Desk for registration code which lasts up to 6 months after graduation) and Casemaker (available to current law students as CasemakerX). It’s worth test-driving these resources in law school, as they continue to gain prominence in the “real world” of law practice. Don’t be surprised if your firm even requires new associates to begin research at one of these lower-cost services before racking up larger research bills on the premium research sites!

But which low-cost service deserves the bulk of your attention? The answer may depend on where you plan to practice. Many of these low-cost services are provided free of charge through state bar associations; currently 48 state bar associations offer free access to at least one low-cost research service to current members. The popular 3 Geeks and a Law Blog has developed a helpful interactive map to illustrate which service is available in a particular state.

So New Yorkers may wish to get acquainted with LoisLaw before graduation, while residents of 28 other states might find Casemaker a worthier time investment. Other options include FastCase (16 states), InCite (offered in Pennsylvania), and VersusLaw (offered in Arkansas). Currently, only Montana and California offer no legal research databases to state bar members, but this situation could change in the future. Check with the state bar where you plan to practice for more information, and get a head-start with free access to LoisLaw and Casemaker during law school.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Keeping Pace with PACER

Last week, the Judicial Conference of the United States approved several steps to improve PACER, the federal courts’ system for Public Access to Court Electronic Records. Among the highlights:
  • While congressionally-mandated user fees will remain stable at $0.08 per page (capped at $2.40 per document), PACER users will not receive a bill until they accrue $10 in charges during a quarterly billing cycle (an upgrade from the previous fee waiver of $10 per year).

  • With approval from the presiding judge, digital audio files of hearings may be downloadable through PACER for $2.40 each. Previously, these recordings had to be obtained through the individual court clerk’s office for $26.00.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts also recently announced an upgrade to PACER, with the debut of the new PACER Case Locator. This search service allows users to identify which court’s PACER database contains materials from a specified case, as well as create customized displays of federal cases by case type, jurisdiction and/or date range. In a few months, the Locator will completely replace the old Party/Case Index, which offered similar search capability in a much less sophisticated interface.

For academic uses by the Duke Law community, the library has a PACER login which may be used; contact the Reference Desk for more information. To learn more about researching court dockets and filings, check out our research guide to Court Records & Briefs. The library’s final Research Madness workshop on Monday, March 29 will also discuss options for finding court documents.

Friday, March 19, 2010

On Human-Flesh Search Engines (and Searching for Humans)

The Goodson Blogson can't stop thinking about an absorbing New York Times Magazine article from earlier this month, China’s Cyberposse. The article describes popular online communities which mobilize to expose and publicly shame individuals who have committed various transgressions (such as adultery, animal cruelty, or government corruption). In some cases, the targets of a human-flesh search have lost their jobs; others now live in hiding, fearful of vigilante justice for their wrongdoings.

Comparable online forums exist in the United States, although they are far less mainstream than their Chinese counterparts. Similar tactics can also be found on a milder scale in the U.S. on social networking websites (such as a Twitter feed in Alaska which posts the license plates of bad drivers or Don’t Date Him Girl, an online community which posts personal information about alleged cheaters or otherwise-lousy boyfriends).

Those who have never attempted to track someone down online might be shocked at how easy it can be with just a few key pieces of information. While there are certainly benefits to this simplicity – consider how often Facebook reunites childhood friends – there are an equal number of concerns. This week, the Times reminded us of the downside by highlighting a research paper from 2009 in which the authors used publicly-accessible online data about birthdates and places to accurately predict Social Security numbers for nearly 10% of the population born between 1989 and 2003—a potential windfall for identity thieves. (Concerned about identity theft? Check out the Federal Trade Commission’s site for helpful info about prevention.)

Still, there are numerous times when legal researchers have a legitimate need to locate people, and it pays to be aware of the resources available (both free and premium) and their uses and limitations. Monday’s Research Madness workshop will cover "Finding & Backgrounding People": whether you expect factual investigation to be a part of your legal employment, or you’re just curious to see what others can discover about you, download the Research Madness calendar (PDF) and plan to attend.

Can’t make it to the workshop on Monday morning? The slides and handouts from this year’s workshops are being posted at http://www.law.duke.edu/lib/workshops/; check back by Monday afternoon for the people-finding materials. And to paraphrase the beverage commercials, please use responsibly.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

SCOTUS Gets a Facelift

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court unveiled a new website, http://www.supremecourt.gov. The new site features a more modern design and several user-friendly features, including an interactive argument calendar, a feed of recent opinions, and a snazzy new search box which includes the option to limit search results to docket files. (Can’t remember what the site used to look like? Here’s a snapshot from May 2008, immortalized on the Wayback Machine.) The change came after SCOTUS received an appropriation in the latest budget to move website management in-house, after a decade of hosting and design services from the Government Printing Office (official press release at SCOTUSblog).

Update your bookmarks! The old http://www.supremecourtus.gov address will continue to work only until July 1. Our extensive U.S. Supreme Court Research Guide will likewise be updated to reflect this change.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Free Access to Law Reviews & Journals

A highlight of our first Research Madness workshop yesterday was the discussion of free sources for legal articles. While law review and journal articles can be a time-saving crash course on an unfamiliar legal topic, racking up search charges for background-gathering on Lexis and Westlaw can be counterproductive. Fortunately, a number of law reviews and journals have embraced open-access publishing, making it easier to find helpful secondary sources on a search of the free web.

The American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center has assembled a custom search engine which scours more than 300 open-access law reviews and legal journals. The engine includes all Duke Law journals (which have been provided free on the web since 1997), as well as many other major U.S. law reviews, several bar journals, and a variety of international and foreign law publications. It also searches SSRN and BePress, major sources for pre-publication articles and working papers. The LTRC engine is now linked from our Legal Databases & Links page, under the column “Finding Articles & Papers”.

What other tips and tricks will be offered in the library’s Research Madness workshops? Download the full calendar and find out for yourself!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Not-So-Public Records

On Wednesday, a Georgia judge ordered the state Bureau of Investigation to prevent public dissemination of gruesome crime scene photographs from a high-profile murder case. A journalist from Hustler magazine had sought the release of police photographs of 24-year-old victim Meredith Emerson, whose body was found nude and decapitated along a Georgia hiking trail in 2008 who disappeared from a Georgia hiking trail in 2008 and was later found nude and decapitated [corrected after comments below]. Emerson’s family requested and received a temporary restraining order which would block the photographs from public release. (Similar restrictions were already in place for autopsy photographs under the state’s open records law, but the status of crime scene photographs in Georgia is murkier.) The court order came as members of the Georgia state legislature simultaneously worked to pass the Meredith Emerson Memorial Privacy Act, which would require permission of the victim’s next of kin for the release of crime scene materials depicting “a deceased person in a nude, bruised, bloodied, or broken state with open wounds or in a state of dismemberment or decapitation."

The case illustrates the sensitive issues which arise within an “open government.” In an affidavit to the court, Emerson’s mother stated that the release “would cause deep and serious emotional pain, embarrassment, humiliation and sadness for me and the entire family […] Meredith would not want the pictures to be disclosed to anyone.” This difficult situation has been in the media before, most notably with the leak of gruesome police photographs from a car accident which killed California teen Nikki Catsouras, who became popularly known online as “Porsche Girl” after the images went viral on the Web.

The Emerson debate coincides with Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open access to government information, which will be held this year from 3/14-3/20. It’s a sobering reminder of the balancing act between government transparency and individual privacy. Open government laws (also commonly known as open records or public records laws) vary widely by state, from what records are available for public review to the manner in which they can be disseminated. For a review of open records laws by state, take a look at Sunshine Review, which includes an overview of each state’s law as well as information about the process of making public records requests. For guides in the library to using open records laws, try a subject keyword search of the libraries' online catalog for government information--united states. But always remember the real people behind those records when you are seeking exceptionally sensitive information, and be aware of the variations among states regarding what records are available.

Where do you stand on the Emerson case? Discuss your thoughts in the comments.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Research Madness: All This Month!

March is usually a turning point in the spring semester, when law students' focus begins to officially shift from schoolwork to summer employment. Whether you’re still on the job market or have an offer in place, the main concern is the same: to stand out from the crowd with your superior skills. The quickest way to make a good impression on your employers? Set yourself apart as a savvy researcher. Surveys of law firms consistently reveal a wide gap between expectation and reality for new associates’ research skills. (See a 2007 Thomson West white paper for one sobering example, finding that new associates overwhelmingly need help conducting cost-effective legal research.)

The library has always offered a week or two of “Research Refresher” workshops in the spring, in order to help ease the transition from academia to real-world research. This year, though, we’ve teamed up with the Career Center, as well as our LexisNexis and Westlaw campus representatives, to bring you an entire month of reviewing legal research basics, taking on some specialized research topics, and even providing career-minded course selection advice. On the advice of our legal team, we’re calling it…RESEARCH MADNESS (download full calendar).

Week 1 kicks off with LexisNexis and Westlaw’s “Prepare to Practice” trainings, which focus on cost-effective use of the popular legal research services. Can’t make it this week? Don’t worry—they’ll continue at various times throughout the entire month of March. Online sign-up is available:
Week 2 is Spring Break; no classes or trainings will be scheduled. If you need one-on-one research help, the library will be open Monday-Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm.

The remaining weeks of March feature a variety of workshops presented by the reference librarians on researching legal topics, offered every Monday and Wednesday-Friday from 9:55-10:55 am in the Fite Room (Library, Level 2). Topics include legislative history; regulations/administrative law materials; locating business & company information; backgrounding people; tracking down court rules and filings; and even “Putting It All Together: Taking a Research Assignment from Start to Finish.”

On Tuesdays from March 16 through April 6, the Career Center will hold academic advisement sessions in Room 3043, intended to help students choose courses which will be useful in their chosen career paths. Beginning with a general overview of course selection for rising 2Ls on March 16, subsequent entries will discuss “Litigation Focus” (March 23), “Corporate/Transactional” (March 30), and “Government/Public Interest” (April 6).

Download the master calendar and join the Research Madness!