Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Papers Chase

This week's New Yorker features "The Great Paper Caper," a fascinating account of the 1970s theft of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter's personal papers from the Library of Congress. The missing documents -- some of which have never resurfaced -- included a 1952 letter from future Chief Justice William Rehnquist, then a law clerk for Justice Robert Jackson, allegedly expressing disappointment with the Court's decision to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson's "separate but equal" doctrine. (Rehnquist's views on segregation, exposed in a separate memorandum released to Newsweek, had become a focal point during his 1971 confirmation hearing. The missing letter from the Frankfurter collection was explored in more detail in a 2012 Boston College Law Review article.)

Author Jill Lepore reconstructs the F.B.I. investigation of the Frankfurter thefts, speaking with researchers who had consulted the papers prior to the theft and recounting the efforts of syndicated columnist Jack Anderson to broker the papers' safe return. Some, but not all, of the purloined papers were eventually sent to him as photocopies; Anderson's plan for publicizing their triumphant return was thwarted by the press's increased attention to the growing Watergate scandal.

It's an engaging heist story which also sheds light on the fractured state of Supreme Court archival research. As Lepore notes:
The papers of Supreme Court Justices are not public records; they’re private property. The decision whether to make these documents available is entirely at the discretion of the Justices and their heirs and executors. They can shred them; they can burn them; they can use them as placemats. Texts vanish; e-mails are deleted. The Court has no policies or guidelines for secretaries and clerks about what to keep and what to throw away. Some Justices have destroyed virtually their entire documentary trail; others have made a point of tossing their conference notes.
Rehnquist, whose Supreme Court career nearly derailed as a result of public access to other Justices' papers, quickly reversed his earlier stated position that Supreme Court papers should all reside at the Library of Congress. His own papers remain mostly inaccessible until the last Justice who served with him passes away. Other Justices' papers might reside at the Library of Congress, with various requirements on the length of their sealing. Some Justices' paper sets were donated to university archives. Still others, such as Hugo Black's, have been burned.

This story is a sobering reminder to historical researchers. While it's well-known by now that not everything is available online, it's perhaps more important to know that many historical records might not be available at all. Databases like WorldCat and ArchiveGrid can help you determine where a particular collection of papers might be held. But access to the documents could require an in-person visit and/or hefty copying fees. Newer archival researchers may benefit from reviewing the Society of American Archivists' Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research, for helpful information on locating archives, requesting materials and planning visits. More seasoned archival researchers might enjoy the recent Inside Higher Ed piece, 6 Tools to Make Archival Research More Efficient, covering apps and technology to make this complex research more streamlined. For assistance with beginning an archival research project, be sure to Ask a Librarian.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Unfriendly Skies: Regulating Drones

From modern warfare to planned Amazon Prime delivery, drones (also known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS) have become more commonplace in the last few years. As drone technology continues to grow more accessible to consumers (see Gizmodo's recent review of household drones, just in time for the holidays), lawmakers have scrambled to react to the potential implications for aerial surveillance and airspace crowding. The Federal Aviation Administration already maintains an information page on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, with frequently-asked questions, links to regulations, and news releases concerning the use of unmanned aircraft for recreational or other purposes. Most recently, the FAA prohibited the use of drones over sports stadiums which seat 30,000 or more people, through a special security notice posted to its website.

The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a 50-state survey, Current Unmanned Aircraft State Law Landscape. This page maps the 20 states which have also enacted some sort of drone-related legislation since 2013, along with a summary of each law. Even North Carolina, the birthplace of aviation, enacted drone legislation as part of the 2014 appropriations bill. The new provisions took effect on October 1.

A report released earlier this month by the Brookings Institution urges lawmakers to exercise caution when enacting legislation related to aerial drone surveillance. Author Gregory McNeal, a law professor at Pepperdine, notes that most legal focus has been on the technology itself rather than setting reasonable limits on the surveillance power of law enforcement. Other scholars have also explored various aspects of drone technology; check out the open-access articles available through the ABA's Legal Technology Resource Center custom search engine or use the subscription databases available under the "Finding Articles”" tab of Legal Databases & Links. For help finding additional resources on drones and the law, be sure to Ask a Librarian.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Mother Court

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York celebrated its 225th anniversary earlier this month, with the festivities documented in a just-released video from the U.S. Courts. Featuring historical artifacts as well as interviews with federal judges and even courtroom artists, the video provides a quick overview of the S.D.N.Y.'s important place in judicial history.

The Southern District of New York was the first new federal district court to be established following the passage of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Its historic first session, on Nov. 3 of that year, earned the S.D.N.Y. the nickname "the Mother Court." The name has endured, as the S.D.N.Y. continues to enjoy a position of influence among federal courts. It has served as the setting for many major trials throughout our nation's history, and has most recently emerged as a pioneer in electronic discovery practice, thanks to Judge Shira Scheindlin in the Zubulake cases.

To learn more about this influential federal court, check out the recent American Bar Association publication The Mother Court: Tales of Cases that Mattered in America's Greatest Trial Court (KF8755.N9 Z57 2014). The book chronicles some of the most well-known cases tackled by the court, including the Ulysses obscenity trial, the espionage case against Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and numerous Mafia convictions. Author James D. Zirin, a former U.S. Attorney in the S.D.N.Y., provides both a short history of the court and a more thorough personal recollection of the cases with which he was directly involved. Because Zirin's former World Trade Center office was destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the personal anecdotes were assembled from memory – a particularly impressive feat for a lifetime of law practice before the court.

Additional publications on the history of S.D.N.Y. have been digitized by the court. For assistance with researching the history of federal courts, be sure to Ask a Librarian.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Magna Carta at 800

Today, the Library of Congress opened its long-awaited exhibition Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor, a 10-week celebration of the foundational charter of liberties which has informed the democratic rule of law in both England and the United States. At the heart of the exhibit is one of only four surviving copies of the 1215 document, on loan from England's Lincoln Cathedral. (As noted in a historical document from the Goodson Law Library's collection, also digitized on HathiTrust, the Lincoln Cathedral previously loaned their copy to the Library of Congress for an exhibition in the late 1930s.)

Today's Washington Post succinctly summarizes the history of this "Great Charter". In an attempt to subdue a rebellion among his feudal barons, King John agreed to the terms of the document, which ensured the rights of land-owning subjects and limited the power of the Crown. Forty-one copies were made and distributed to each baron; the document on display at the Library of Congress is one of the few left from this set. However, King John later voided the charter with the help of Pope Innocent, sparking the First Barons' War. Finally signed into law in 1297, Magna Carta rose to philosophical and scholarly prominence in the 17th century, thanks to Sir Edward Coke's Second Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England. And the rest, as they say, is history.

For more information about Magna Carta as its 800th anniversary nears, check out For more information about the Library of Congress exhibit (which runs through January 2015), visit the exhibition website. The American Bar Association is also planning some anniversary events in 2015. To learn more about Magna Carta's history and impact before its 800th birthday celebration, try a subject search of the Duke Libraries catalog for "Magna Carta" or Ask a Librarian.