Monday, September 30, 2013 The Final Countdown

For nearly two decades, THOMAS has provided free public access to information about Congress: bill text, legislative history materials, member biographies, and committee activities. But in November, the Library of Congress's newer interface is taking over as the default public website for congressional research, after a two-year beta test. (For fans of the older site, the THOMAS interface will continue to be available via a link on until late 2014, although links to and will redirect to the homepage.) offers improved search capability over THOMAS's more basic interface. Users can also link directly to search results or individual documents, and subscribe to search alerts via RSS (both features which were impossible with THOMAS's unstable URLs). will soon complete its migration of all historical content from THOMAS (currently, the full text of legislation from 1990-1992 is still available only on THOMAS). also incorporates some content which was not easily accessible on THOMAS, such as a prominent space for the Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation (CONAN), an annotated version of the U.S. Constitution which contains discussion and footnotes to case law explaining each article and amendment to the Constitution. CONAN also includes helpful historical tables, such as Acts of Congress Held Unconstitutional and Overruled Supreme Court Decisions.

As noted in the September monthly update on the progress of, several design changes have been made to the site recently in response to user feedback. And the makers of are still soliciting public input on the site's sleek new look: visitors can assist with upgrades to the design of by completing a brief usability test. The anonymous exercise asks users where they might click on the homepage in order to complete certain tasks. Share your thoughts on the new site by completing the 15-20 minute exercise.

Of course, in the event of a federal government shutdown beginning Tuesday, October 1, both and THOMAS will become inaccessible, along with the rest of the Library of Congress website will become inaccessible. Follow the latest shutdown news at the Washington Post – and, while it lasts, [Update 10/1: THOMAS and remain open during the federal shutdown. All other LOC sites are inaccessible.]

Friday, September 13, 2013

Who Watches the Watchmen: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

Earlier this week, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper released a number of newly-declassified documents related to the operations of the National Security Agency. The NSA has occupied the headlines all summer, since former contract employee Edward Snowden released materials to the media which exposed details of large-scale government surveillance programs. But this week's releases were actually prompted by a ruling in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed several years earlier by the watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation (see news release & searchable collection of documents).

The documents include a number of redacted opinions and orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). The operations of this mysterious federal court, which was established in 1978 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), have long been a source of interest for scholars and privacy advocates. Federal law provides that "The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court shall have jurisdiction to hear applications for and grant orders approving a physical search for the purpose of obtaining foreign intelligence information anywhere within the United States" (50 U.S.C. § 1822(c)). Other sections of the U.S. Code direct the U.S. Attorney General to provide a semiannual summary of the court's activities to select committees within the House and Senate. These reports, dating back to 1979, have been compiled and archived on the Federation of American Scientists' FISA information page. However, they contain only brief descriptions of the total number of applications to the court for electronic surveillance authorization, and the number withdrawn or granted.

But other materials from this court have proven elusive. As noted in a 2007 Congressional Research Service report, "Only one opinion has been published since the court's inception in 1978": 2002's In re All Matters Submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, 218 F. Supp. 2d 611 (full text via Google Scholar). A handful of other FISC opinions and orders, not selected for formal publication, have been collected by groups like the Electronic Privacy and Information Center and FAS, which culled them from FOIA releases and congressional document reprints. The September 10 document release includes several more opinions from 2006-2009, identified only by docket number, which shed additional light on the operations and reasoning of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

To learn more about the legal issues surrounding FISA and the FISC, check out the treatises The Law of Electronic Surveillance (KF9670 .C373 & online in Westlaw); Proskauer on Privacy: A Guide to Privacy and Data Security Law in the Information Age (KF1263.C65 P76 & online in Bloomberg Law & PLI Discover PLUS), and Privacy Law and the USA Patriot Act  (KF9430 .P67 & online in LexisNexis). For help with locating these or other treatises, be sure to Ask a Librarian.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hard Jargon

In the new issue of ABA Journal, legal writing expert (and Black's Law Dictionary editor) Bryan A. Garner poses a legal vocabulary challenge. Inspired by a 1948 textbook, Garner's multiple-choice quiz offers twenty words which are not commonly found in everyday conversation, but do appear with some frequency in American court opinions (ranging from dozens of cases, to more than a thousand). So far, only four test-takers have managed a perfect score, according to Garner's Twitter feed. How did your vocabulary skills stack up?

If your quiz score was disappointing, don't despair – Garner offers his favorite vocabulary-building tip in the article. He recommends jotting down unfamiliar words as you encounter them, and then consulting a dictionary once you have amassed a good-sized list. (He suggests avoiding the temptation to perform an immediate look-up on a mobile device, as his method improves long-term retention of the definitions.)

Fortunately, you have a number of dictionaries available in the Goodson Law Library and elsewhere at Duke. Current editions of dictionaries (both general and legal) are available in the library's Reference collection. Although these items cannot be checked out and removed from the library, they're always available for consultation. Stands in the Reading Room hold the latest edition of Black's Law Dictionary (near the center staircase) and Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (near the windows). Additional print dictionaries in the Law Library can be found with a catalog search for "English language – Dictionaries".

If you need to take your vocabulary lessons on the go (despite Garner's best advice), many dictionaries are available at your fingertips. The Oxford Dictionary of English (3d ed. 2010) can be accessed online with a Duke University NetID and password, as can its super-sized granddaddy, the Oxford English Dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers a free online site for its popular dictionaries and thesauri.

Many legal dictionaries are also available online. Black's Law Dictionary can be searched on Westlaw; LexisNexis offers Ballentine's Law Dictionary. Free law dictionaries are provided on FindLaw and Nolo Press.

For assistance with locating print or online dictionaries, it is perpetually prudent to query a professional. In other words, be sure to Ask a Librarian.