Thursday, December 22, 2011

Foreign Country "Cheat Sheets"

With the Goodson Law Library preparing for upcoming Christmas and New Year holiday closures (see Hours & Directions for info), it’s a good time to reflect on holidays around the world. As globalization has made transnational business the new normal, lawyers must be aware of cultural differences which can impact scheduling and travel plans; these details aren’t always readily apparent from travel guidebooks or simple web searching.

Most international travelers are already familiar with the Background Notes and travel information provided by the U.S. State Department, including security threats and travel warnings. But a lesser-known series from the federal government can also be invaluable to travelers and those who do business on a global scale.

The Commerce Department’s U.S. Commercial Service publishes and updates Country Commercial Guides, which are intended for use by U.S. companies doing business in a particular country. Chapter 8, “Business Travel,” always contains a section “Local Time, Business Hours and Holidays,” which provides useful information about the typical work week (including the usual lunch hour), important national holidays, and other invaluable insights. While Biglaw associates may be toiling away in their Manhattan offices on Friday the 23rd, they shouldn’t bother scheduling a conference call to Tokyo – it’s the Emperor’s Birthday. Qatar would also be out of the question – Friday, as “the Muslim holy day, is a day of rest for all sectors.” Country Commercial Guides are available free on the web through the Market Research Library, and can be searched by country or browsed by Report Type.

Incidentally, if international travel is in your future, remember that the Duke University Libraries maintain a subscription to Byki, a flashcard-based foreign-language instructional system for more than 70 languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu. Safe travels to our readers over the holiday season, and best wishes for 2012.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Get the Gift of Forgotten Green

December can be full of unexpected surprises – a holiday card from a long-lost friend, a sudden snow day from work or school, or a fabulous gift from your wish list. But for a quick moment of pure unmitigated cheer, a seasonal favorite has to be pulling out your heavy coat in anticipation of another dreary winter, and finding some long-forgotten cash in the pocket.

But wouldn’t it be even better if that crumpled-up $20 bill was a check for $1,500? The Internal Revenue Service recently announced that more than $150 million in federal tax refunds have gone undelivered this year, usually due to outdated mailing addresses. If you’re one of the 99,123 taxpayers who is still waiting for a refund check, visit the IRS status lookup page Where’s My Refund? You’ll need to provide your Social Security Number, filing status and the exact amount of the refund. With the average unclaimed refund totaling $1,547, the site is certainly worth a visit.

The IRS isn’t the only place which may be holding on to your unclaimed money, though. The federal portal contains a page of pointers for locating unclaimed money from failed banks, HUD, employer pension funds, and old savings bonds. There’s also a link to equivalent state government websites via, which can link you to utility and security deposits from past addresses, old bank accounts, and other unclaimed property. Each state will provide a search feature, as well as instructions for how to claim your money.

Finally, December is a great time to grab any or all of your three free annual credit reports for 2011, which are provided at This site was created by the three major credit reporting agencies – TransUnion, Experian, and EquiFax – after a 2003 amendment to the Fair Credit Reporting Act mandated that consumers must be able to receive a copy of their credit report from each agency at no charge once per year (15 U.S.C. 1681j). (Afraid you'll mistakenly end up at one of the commercial websites which claim to offer free credit reports, but actually sign you up for expensive credit-monitoring services? Use the link through the Federal Trade Commission’s website to be sure.)

For help with finding more consumer protection resources online or in the library, be sure to Ask a Librarian.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Poping Ain't Easy

Last week, German newspapers reported that Pope Benedict XVI had been sued by an anonymous citizen for “repeatedly violat[ing] German seatbelt laws during a visit to Freiburg in September.” Allegedly armed with YouTube videos of the Catholic leader recklessly standing “for more than an hour” in his famous Popemobile, the suit requests the maximum fine of 2,500 euros for repeated violations of the misdemeanor. Lowering The Bar investigated further and discovered that even if the Pope did neglect to buckle up in the bulletproof Plexiglas cabin of his armored Mercedes-Benz, diplomatic immunity provides yet another layer of papal protection from an overzealous Verkehrspolizist. (Though he should be more careful in the future - the 5-ton Popemobile can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in a respectable six seconds, and can achieve a top speed of 160 mph.)

With the German attorney outright admitting that the suit was really intended to raise public awareness of the country’s seatbelt laws, the Vatican’s legal department was free to focus on offensive rather than defensive strategies. In November, threats of legal action convinced fashion company Benetton to pull an advertisement which depicted the Pope in a doctored kiss with Egyptian imam Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb. The Vatican has indicated that it will continue to pursue legal avenues, even after the company's voluntary removal of the ads featuring the Pope.

But in this particular case, the Vatican may wish to adopt the more laissez-faire attitude of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (who shrugged off his own Benetton-created lip-lock with President Barack Obama yesterday in a press conference), because they may have a far more serious legal situation on the horizon. In mid-September, a group called Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP) petitioned the International Criminal Court in The Hague, requesting that an investigation be opened for crimes against humanity by the Pope and several high-ranking Catholic cardinals, stemming from the worldwide clergy sex abuse scandals from the early 1980s to the present day. (The complaint, and thousands of pages of supporting documentation, can be read at Most ICC-watchers think it’s unlikely that the Prosecutor will decide that the complaint falls within the court’s jurisdiction (NY Times). SNAP provides a FAQ sheet on its website, addressing this and other questions about the filing.

ICC jurisdiction can be triggered by a State Party’s referral, by the UN Security Council or by the Prosecutor acting of his own volition (proprio motu). It is rare for the ICC Prosecutor to invoke his proprio motu power; the first such instance since the Court’s creation in 2002 did not occur until late 2009. Article 15 of the Rome Statute (PDF) does not specify a time frame for the Prosecutor’s determination whether to proceed proprio motu, so it remains to be seen whether the ICC will open a formal investigation into the SNAP complaint. But if you'd like to learn more about the inner workings of the ICC in the meantime, consult the resources in our International Criminal Law research guide, or Ask a Librarian.