Let’s Hear it for BNA Law Reports

An extra hour of sleep from the end of DST prompts a bounty of mirth…as do BNA Law Reports! We recently were asked for electronic copies of filings from an L.A. County Superior Court civil matter. Ah, the oft-elusive electronic state court records…Various e-access options exist for L.A. County civil court records. For instance, they can be searched electronically for a fee through the court’s website. Finding them on Westlaw or Lexis’ Courtlink can be hit-or-miss, though Bloomberg Law is a great resource because BLAW uploads and make available those filings previously requested by other interested customers. In this particular instance, while the memoranda of points of authorities from a motion to strike were already uploaded within the BLAW system, a quite recent court order was not. Before leaving the BLAW interface to search blogs and news more broadly, I quickly checked BNA Law Reports. Hooray! Though only a superior court case, it was newsworthy enough to have been covered by BNA’s Patent Trademark & Copyright Journal, which also provided a copy of the court’s order. We heart BNA Law Reports! (Now, if only the filing content from the BNA law reports could be linked directly to BLAW dockets!)

Kudos for SCOTUSblog updates

SCOTUSblog’s e-mail updates have been pretty helpful this October Term! We just started using them to track a few merits cases for which the filings have been fairly slow to appear on Bloomberg Law & WestlawNext. By contrast, the SCOTUSblog updates appear pretty timely in the trial runs we’ve done. The format is terrific, too, providing links both to the PDFs of the filed brief, and a link back to the docket, itself. Next up: subscription to and comparison with alerts from ABA preview briefs.

Filings in Legal Databases as Possible Source for Withdrawn State Court Opinions

We wanted to share as a tip the good fortune that might be had in a legal database’s collection of “Filings” when one is searching for withdrawn state court opinions.  In our scenario, citations in both WestlawNext (“WLN”) and LexisAdvance (“LA”) indicated that a particular state supreme court opinion had been withdrawn.  The WLN & LA results for the withdrawn opinion revealed only that the opinion had been substituted, but no longer contained the text for the withdrawn opinion.  However, with some deep digging into WLN’s “Filings” linked to the substituted opinion, we were able to find a PDF copy of the withdrawn opinion attached as an exhibit to a petition for review.  Often (and as was the case here) the HTML versions of these “Filings” lack referenced exhibits, but thank goodness for PDFs…particularly for these 25-year-old, pre-electronic-filing state court cases!

We hope you’re equally as lucky in gaining ready access to withdrawn state supreme court opinions!

Altmetrics Bibliography

Of note for those interested in tracking scholarly impact, Digital Scholarship has released a bibliography of recent (2001-2013) articles & reports useful in understanding altmetrics.  You may find Digital Scholarship’s Altmetrics Bibliography here.

California’s Prop. 8 in Federal Court: Key Timeline, Briefs, and Opinions Leading to Hollingsworth Cert Petition

On July 30, 2012, California Proposition 8 proponents petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari.  In Hollingsworth v. Perry, petitioners (the original “Defendant-Intervenors”) ask the Court to review the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ opinion in Perry v. Brown, (671 F.3d 1052), which affirmed the district court’s determination that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional (Perry v. Schwarzenegger, 704 F. Supp. 2d 921).

We have prepared a timeline of key events, and gathered the main briefs and opinions, for the Prop. 8 federal cases leading up to the Hollingsworth petition.  These are intended as highlight compilations only.  Both are linked below.

Prop 8 in Federal Court_Key Timeline

Prop 8 in Federal Court_Main Briefs and Opinions

Cross-posted on the SLS Law Library Blog.

HeinOnline’s Browsable Congressional Record Index

We’ve recently learned that HeinOnline’s “U.S. Congressional Documents” library offers browsable copies of the Congressional Record Index.  Given proposals to axe many print copies of the Congressional Record, there is concern that, among other things, we could lose ready access to the great research tool that is the Index.  Last year, we researched dozens of wilderness-related bills in the 1950s-1960s.  Initially, title searching in Congressional documents databases did not identify them all, because a few of the earlier bills were captioned as “forestry”—a fact discovered by using the print version of the Congressional Record Index.  So, we are  relieved that HeinOnline has preserved the Index’s utility with browsable PDFs.  To boot, they do a great job with metadata structuring.  Each letter within an Index may be accessed via separate hyperlink.  As one browses, the list of hyperlinks remains visible along the left of the screen, allowing for easy navigation.  Thank you, HeinOnline!

Finding History in a Drawer

In 1875, a jury committed Mary Todd Lincoln to an insane asylum.  This week, the Chicago Tribune reported that two Illinois State Supreme Court justices discovered her trial papers still on file with the Cook County Clerk!  The Clerk’s Office will be donating them to the Lincoln museum, but we hope the story does not end there.  Like many others, we’ve previously posted about the cultural heritage reflected in state court files.  Some of the stories told in these documents are historically significant, like Mary Todd Lincoln’s commitment, or John Wesley Hardin’s murder trial (see this Texas Task Force report).  Many stories, however, are just minor threads in life’s tapestry: divorces, probates, business disputes.  Whether the story is big or small, the court records that tell it may be irreplaceable.

Each state’s preservation rules differ.  Some place the retention determination in the hands of state libraries or archives, some issue mandatory retention schedules based on the nature of the action, and some afford the clerk of court discretion to dispose of files after prescribed time periods.  Even if a clerk of court wanted to save everything, storage expenses and space constraints make this impossible.  The costs of digitizing every paper record are prohibitive.  As cultural institutions may not be interested in less noteworthy files, many are noticed for destruction.  Provided that a state’s rules allow it, however, law libraries may be uniquely positioned to rescue these files — preserving not just the documents, but also state history.  And if you spend some time digging through them all, you never know just what you might find…

How to Use Legislative History to Teach Grammar

Anyone teaching the importance of legislative history in legal research need only point to a single punctuation mark: the mighty comma.  As a disclaimer, I strive to put my years of Latin classes to good use, but do not profess to be punctuationally-perfect.  (Interestingly, the Romans did not use modern punctuation, but I digress…)   One thing I do know, however, is that other people’s grammatical shortcomings sure can wreak a lot of havoc… making them a great teaching tool.

This past week, I was researching a state statute that, among many other things, imposed conditions on persons who had committed a “felony or misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”  At first blush, one would read this to mean that the conditions apply to persons involved in domestic violence felonies and misdemeanors.  Get this:  That provision actually governs anyone who commits either a “felony” or a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”  In other words, we should really be reading a comma into the statute between “felony” and “misdemeanor” where the legislators neglected to put one!

Uncovering the latent comma was not easy.  News articles referred to the imposition of the conditions on felons, but without citing the supporting statutory clause.  Secondary sources referred to conditions emanating from the “domestic violence clause” of the statute, failing to illuminate that the clause also covers all felonies.  Case law cited the statute as creating certain conditions, but decided matters on other grounds.

The best recourse was to trace the historical progression of the clause, which I was able to do through older versions of the statute and the legislators’ own analysis.  Earlier iterations made no reference to domestic violence whatsoever, as the clause originally pertained to persons who had committed any felony.  Years later, the legislature added “or misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” but failed to demarcate this clause with a comma that would have resolved ambiguity.  If the legislators had simply written “any felony, or misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” I would have spent fifteen minutes on a project that instead took five hours!  (Note:  I do not require legislators to bold, italicize, or underscore the comma; any font or stylization will do!)

Do you have any grammar-related teachable moments you’d like to share?  We’d love to hear them and pass them along to our classes.  To that end, I particularly enjoyed Prof. Susan J. Hankin’s “Statutory Interpretation in the Age of Grammatical Permissiveness:  An Object Lesson for Teaching Why Grammar Matters,” which references recent literature on the subject and also offers some great case law examples to use in class.

Don’t Mess With Texas State Court Documents

State court case files are rife with personal and community histories that often cannot be found anywhere else.  These documents also reflect developments in the language of the law, and the procedures of our court systems.  Preserving these historical gems is increasingly important as many records face destruction due to court space and budget constraints, and the ill effects of time or the elements.  We hope to provide periodic updates here about states’ efforts to preserve such records and, on that note, want to spread the word about developments today in Texas.

Just shy of two years ago, the Texas Supreme Court established a volunteer task force of attorneys, judges, historians, document preservationists, and county and statewide officials to “develop a report that discusses statewide county preservation needs, the importance of protecting the records, and providing assistance to counties to do that.”  (See this Texas state bar blog.)  After extensive studies, the Task Force issued this report on August 31, 2011.  In addition to containing practical information for other jurisdictions similarly seeking to preserve state court files, the report contains anecdotes that scratch the surface of the kind of information at risk of being lost.

Here is an excerpt from its “Overview”:

In his classic song, Hardin Wouldn’t Run, Johnny Cash sang that outlaw John Wesley Hardin was a steadfast man. Truth is, Hardin was not so firmly fixed. After shooting Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb in Comanche County in 1874, Hardin fled Texas and headed east. Texas Ranger John B. Armstrong pursued Hardin and found him on a train outside Pensacola, Florida several years later. Armstrong overtook Hardin after Hardin got his pistols tangled up in his suspenders when he tried to draw. He was brought back to Comanche County, Texas, and put on trial before a jury of twelve citizens of the county. Bob Dylan, in his Hardin song, sang that “no crime held against him could they prove.” That is also incorrect. Unlike Jesse James and Billy the Kid, who were both gunned down, John Wesley Hardin, who killed many people in multiple states, was convicted of murder in 1878 and sentenced to prison in Huntsville, Texas.  The historical documents that record the true story about the trial and sentencing of Hardin are at risk of being stolen, destroyed, or lost . . .  The Hardin records are not unique. Thousands of other Records are stored in hundreds of Texas district and county clerk archives. Some of these facilities are excellent; some of these Records are preserved, or in the process of being preserved. But many of the oldest Records – especially those that date back to the Republic of Texas, early statehood, or the Civil War – are at risk of being lost forever, unless measures are soon taken to help district and county clerks protect them.