Friday, July 26, 2013

Dream of the 990s

It may not be obvious from their name, but non-profit (often interchangeably called tax-exempt) organizations may actually deal with vast sums of money. In exchange for special tax treatment, exempt organizations in the United States are required to file special reports with the Internal Revenue Service. These annual Form 990s provide detailed descriptions of the organization's operations, including governance structure and compensation of employees.

Form 990 can be a useful tool for evaluating how donations to a charitable organization will likely end up being distributed. The subscription service GuideStar (available to the Duke University community with a current NetID and password) and free websites like Charity Navigator (selected features available without free registration) use this data to assess the financial health of a nonprofit organization, and sometimes even provide a rating system for consumers. (For example, Duke University receives 3 stars out of a possible 4 on Charity Navigator's website. The score is drawn from both financial health of the organization – high in Duke's case – and transparency and accountability, where Duke scored lower – due in part to the difficulty of finding the most recent Form 990 posted on the university website!)

Both GuideStar and Charity Navigator provide some access to PDFs of Form 990 filings, but additional sources on the web also make searching these filings easier. Historically, the IRS has provided DVDs of Form 990 data to selected research groups. The government information advocates at Public.Resource.Org work each month to convert the data on these DVDs into a publicly-accessible free repository of filings. Reports of Exempt Organizations includes a basic search engine and filings back to 2002. Also, in May 2013, ProPublica announced a new Nonprofit Explorer search engine with filings back to the late 1990s.

To learn more about the legal issues surrounding nonprofit organizations, check out the treatises Nonprofit Organizations: Law & Taxation (KF1388 .P472 & online in Westlaw: NPOLT database) and Advising the Nonprofit Organization 2013 (online to Duke University via PLI Discover Plus & also online in Bloomberg Law). For help locating Form 990s or other materials about nonprofit organizations, be sure to Ask a Librarian.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Embracing the Internet (Intelligently)

In his upcoming book Reflections on Judging (due out this fall), U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner urges his peers on the bench to embrace extracurricular web-surfing in order to better understand the cases before them. According to the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog (subscription required), which obtained a review copy of the work, Posner complains that judges' technophobia creates a vicious cycle of under-informed case records: "Judicial timidity about conducting Internet research has a negative feedback. Appellate lawyers naturally focus their briefs and oral arguments on what the judges have the easiest access to. […]The Web is an incredible compendium of data and a potentially invaluable resource for lawyers and judges that is underutilized by them."

For his part, Posner has used web searching to find common definitions of the word "harboring" (as many rising 2Ls will remember from this spring's LARW appellate brief), and also to obtain plain-English explanations of complicated technical processes. While Posner acknowledges the potential pitfalls of relying on community-edited websites such as Wikipedia, he also points out that the fact-finding process of courts can be equally flawed.

How can budding lawyers harness the Internet for fact-finding as effectively as Judge Posner does? It helps to keep a few reference guides handy. Zimmerman's Research Guide is a free online resource hosted by LexisNexis (no subscription required) which points attorneys to great starting places for a variety of research topics, including historical weather data, registries of website owners, and records for military personnel.

Several works in the Goodson Law Library's collection also help point researchers to online fact-finding sources. In particular, Carole Levitt and Mark Rosch's series Find Info Like a Pro (part I and part II) outlines a mix of free and fee-based sources for locating public records information.
Carole Levitt is also the author of Google for Lawyers: Essential Search Tips and Productivity Tools. While many of her advanced search tips in that book are still helpful, it also illustrates the fast-moving nature of online research. Several of the Google search tricks and tools which were highlighted in that 2010 book can already be found in the Google Graveyard of retired services (with another, the Google Uncle Sam government search engine, killed so quietly that it doesn’t even merit a virtual headstone).

It's hard to keep up with constant changes to existing products and the debut of new ones. So for help locating the best source for an online research question, be sure to Ask a Librarian.

Monday, July 1, 2013

ProQuest Legislative Insight: A Window into History

The Goodson Law Library is pleased to announce campus-wide access to the database ProQuest Legislative Insight, a collection of nearly 20,000 compiled legislative histories for federal laws. Coverage is strongest from 1929-present, but the database also includes selected compilations dating back to 1897.

Like its sister database ProQuest Congressional, Legislative Insight provides a handy list of congressional documents (bills, reports, debates, and hearings) which are associated with a particular law. However, Legislative Insight provides the full text of all associated documents in the compiled legislative history – even those document types which are not available in the Congressional interface (such as reports and debates, which Duke researchers previously had to access through other resources).

To view the difference in action, compare search results in each database for Public Law 78-110. On this day in 1943, Congress established the Women's Army Corps, which formally incorporated the previous civilian Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (created in 1942) to be a full part of the U.S. Army. The change allowed WAC's volunteer forces to be eligible for the same benefits which were available to male members of the Army.

ProQuest Congressional returns 6 results for this Public Law. Three are available in full text: the session law from the U.S. Statutes at Large and two congressional hearings. The other three results are committee reports, which are unavailable in full text at Duke through ProQuest Congressional, but could be obtained by visiting the separate database U.S. Congressional Serial Set Digital Collection. Debates from the Congressional Record are not available at Duke through ProQuest Congressional, but could be obtained from HeinOnline's U.S. Congressional Documents library.

ProQuest Legislative Insight's result page for Public Law 78-110, however, includes 18 publications related to this act, all of which are available as full-text PDFs. It includes the reports and debates which are missing from ProQuest Congressional at Duke, as well as alternate versions of the bill which became the enacted law.

ProQuest Legislative Insight does not include materials which are unrelated to an enacted law, so ProQuest Congressional is still a very useful resource for locating information about legislative history documents related to unenacted legislation. But if you are researching a federal law which was enacted during the time period of coverage, Legislative Insight is a very convenient starting point to access the relevant documents from the U.S. Congress.

ProQuest Legislative Insight has been added to the Goodson Law Library's Legal Databases & Links page as well as its extensive research guide to Federal Legislative History. For help using Legislative Insight, or any other federal legislative history research resource, be sure to Ask a Librarian.