Sunday, November 29, 2009

Wolfram|Alpha - Numbers and More!

Wolfram|Alpha is an amazing project that seeks "to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone." Of course, it has not achieved that ambitious goal yet. But it has done a surprising amount and made it easily available, free, to any web user.

It's not a search engine -- when you enter a search, it doesn't go out and scour the web for you. Instead, it goes to its own datasets. The basic information is "curated" -- that is, screened by someone who's paying attention. Sources may be published studies, government reports, or reference works.

So what sort of data is in there? It's amazingly diverse.
  • Want to know how many calories in your latte? Type in 12 oz latte, and it comes back with all the nutritional information for a Starbucks latte: 132 calories (and 302 mg calcium, 8.5 g protein, 13 g sugar, etc.) What about nonfat milk? Type in 12 oz latte skim milk, and now the answer is 98 calories (345 mg calcium, 9.2 g protein, 13 g sugar).

  • Want some information about murder in Seattle? Type in homicide seattle, and in instants you see that a 2007 estimate was 4.1 crimes per 100,000 people per year, and you see a graph showing the rate dropping over the last 20 years. Click on "Source Information" to learn that Wolfram|Alpha got its data from the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2009.

  • What if you'd like to compare homicide rates in Seattle with some other cities? Type in homicide seattle san francisco houston baltimore:
    Seattle,Washington | 4.1 crimes/100000 persons/yr
    San Francisco,California | 13.6 crimes/100000 persons/yr
    Houston,Texas | 16.2 crimes/100000 persons/yr
    Baltimore,Maryland | 45.2 crimes/100000 persons/yr
    (Data isn't available if you try to do this for sydney, tokyo, and amsterdam. But try again in a month -- they're building their datasets all the time.)

  • Pondering job offers in different cities? Try this: cost of living seattle spokane portland:
    Seattle, Washington | 124 (Q3 2009)
    Spokane, Washington | 93.3 (Q3 2009)
    Portland, Oregon | 116 (Q3 2009)
  • Want to figure out how much monthly loan payments will be? Type in loan payment -- and then manipulate the balance, the term, and the interest rate.
    loan amount | $ 80000 (US dollars)
    loan period | 10 years
    annual percentage rate | 4%
    payment interval | monthly
    monthly payment | $ 809.96
    number of payments | 120
    time to first payment | 1 month
    effective interest rate | 4.074%
    (assuming the last payment is due the last day of the loan period)

  • The possibilities are, well, not endless -- but vast. Try:
    • us gdp
    • microsoft stock
    • quadratic equation
    • uranium
Does it do everything? No, not by a long shot. I tried a number of searches that didn't come up with anything -- looking for death penalty statistics, immigration statistics, the number of marriages that end in divorce, the number of abortions compared to the number of live births. So there's still a use for all the other sources we know and use. But, boy, when Wolfram|Alpha works, it's really, really slick.

Wolfram|Alpha is a site that can be used by very serious number-crunchers (engineers, scientists, economists, et al.). It can also be used by people who don't know an integral from an integer. The Wolfram|Alpha blog even features a video of a fourth grade teacher talking about how she uses it with her students!

Wolfram|Alpha's public release was in May (I'll confess it took me six months to hear about it, despite its coverage in blogs and other sources) and it will only get better. It's definitely a site to watch. Speaking of watching: take a look at Stephen Wolfram's 13-minute video introducing it. It's dazzling.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

JP Morgan Removes Arbitration Clauses

Parties to a contract often like arbitration clauses because they offer a cheaper and easier resolution to disputes than formal litigation. However, credit-card companies typically dictate the terms of the agreement for consumer debts and hire arbitration companies to handle all of their customer's disputes.

The Wall Street Journal reported last weekend that JP Morgan is removing arbitration clauses from their credit-card agreements. This change comes in the wake of several court cases addressing the close relationship the banks enjoy with arbitration companies.

Businessweek reported this summer that the Minnesota Attorney General filed suit against the industy-leading National Arbitration Forum. As Business week reports, "[The Minnesota suit] follows a bias case brought against NAF last year by the San Francisco city attorney in California state court."

-- Patrick Flanagan

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Find Legal Opinions on Google Scholar

Google announced today that legal opinions are now available via Google Scholar. Full-text opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts were made available just this morning. Go to Google Scholar, click on the "Legal opinions and journals" radio button, and enter a case name or citation. You may also search by keyword. Once you find a case, you will see more information behind the How cited tab.

“We think this addition to Google Scholar will empower the average citizen by helping everyone learn more about the laws that govern us all.” --Anurag Acharya, Google

Monday, November 16, 2009

Charges Filed Against Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan

Military prosecutors charged Maj. Hasan with 13 counts of premeditated murder on Friday, November 13. He will face those charges, and perhaps others not yet announced, in a military trial, a court-martial. Courts-martial are both the forums and the proceedings in which members of the armed forces are tried for traditional offenses, like rape or murder, and offenses that are peculiar to the military, like absence without leave.

The trial will be governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (10 U.S.C. §§801-946), which sets out the substantive provisions of the military criminal justice system, and the procedural rules found in the Manual for Courts-Martial. For a general overview of the process for this court-martial, check out’s article, “How the Military Will Try Nidal Hasan.” The Department of Defense has a more detailed description of the types of courts-martial at its Victim and Witness Assistance Council website.

In the Gallagher Law Library you can find the Uniform Code of Military Justice in the United States Code (including, of course, the USCA and the USCS), at KF62 in the Reference Area. The most recent edition of the Manual for Courts-Martial (which also includes the UCMJ in an appendix), is found in paper in the Classified Stacks at KF7625 .A852 2008. For more information about researching military justice, consult Chapter 9 (Military and Veterans Law) in Penny A. Hazelton, ed., Specialized Legal Research, KF240 .S63 in the Reference Office.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rule of Law Index from the World Justice Project

The World Justice Project (WJP) is an international organization whose mission is “to lead a global, multidisciplinary effort to strengthen the rule of law for the development of communities of opportunity and equity.” Its sponsoring organizations include bar associations, associations of educators, human rights groups, chambers of commerce, and public health associations around the world.

The Rule of Law Index is a new tool that measures over 100 variables about the rule of law as portrayed in practice and as it exists “in the books.” As described at the WJP website, these factors are drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments summarized in the following four statements, which constitute the WJP's definition of the rule of law:

  1. The government and its officials and agents are accountable under the law.
  2. The laws are clear, publicized, stable and fair, and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property.
  3. The process by which the laws are enacted, administered and enforced is accessible, fair and efficient.
  4. Access to justice is provided by competent, independent, and ethical adjudicators, attorneys or representatives and judicial officers who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

Version 1.0 of the Index has been field tested in six countries so far. There is now a Version 2.0 and it is anticipated that the Index will be administered in 100 countries in 3 years. In each country, a Rule of Law Index report will detail the findings.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Search (Some) Washington Court Records Free

Now you can search some information in Washington State court records in a database from the Washington Courts.

You can search by name to find cases involving a person in any court in the state. You can also search by individual or business (or agency) name court by court.

This is NOT the official record and is intended only as reference. For some searches, you need to click that you agree to check the official record before acting on information with respect to an individual.

But it is convenient. And free.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Supreme Court Database

How many decisions did Justice Souter author? How many cases considered by the Warren Court (1953-1967) involved the federal habeas corpus act? In how many of those cases was the lower court’s decision affirmed?

If you are curious about Supreme Court statistics, check out the Supreme Court Database. It presently covers terms from 1953-2008 and is updated four times a year. More than two hundred pieces of information is included about each case, such as its origin, why the Court agreed to hear it, the issues involved, how each Justice voted, and the case’s disposition. An easy form lets you select specific parameters for your own analysis.

Arguing Word Usage with Justice Scalia

On Tuesday, 11/3, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Hemi Group, LLC v. City of New York (08-969). The case involves the issue of whether state and local governments have standing under the RICO statute to bring suit for recovery of uncollected taxes (and treble damages).

The Hemi Group sells cigarettes over the Internet, advertising that they are “tax-free.” It ships from low-tax sites, such as tribal lands. New York City imposes hefty taxes on tobacco products sold or used there. Of course, Hemi Group is not responsible for collecting the New York taxes; instead, New York customers are responsible for contacting the City and paying those taxes. Few customers, however, want to take that step. Recognizing the difficulty local governments would have in collecting these taxes, Congress passed the Jenkins Act in 1949. That act requires out-of-state vendors to report purchases to each customer’s state, which Hemi failed to do.

On behalf of Hemi Group, lawyer Randolph Barnhouse argued that New York had lost only an “opportunity” to collect taxes, an “inchoate interest” not amounting to property under RICO. In response to a hypothetical, Barnhouse referred to a “choate” interest in property, leading to this exchange with Justice Scalia (as reported by the online weekly ABA Journal):
“There is no such adjective,” Scalia said. “I know we have used it, but there is no such adjective as ‘choate.’ There is ‘inchoate,’ but the opposite of ‘inchoate’ is not ‘choate.’ "

As Barnhouse tried to move on, Scalia offered an example. “It's like 'gruntled,' " he said.

“But I think I am right on the law, Your Honor,” Barnhouse offered, but Scalia wasn’t done.

"Exactly. 'Disgruntled,' " Scalia said. Some people mistakenly assume the opposite of “disgruntled" is “gruntled,” he explained.
It would certainly be a bit embarrassing to be caught by a Justice using a “non” word. But is Justice Scalia correct? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which is available online through the UW Libraries, describes “choate” as an “An erroneous word, framed to mean ‘finished’, ‘complete’, as if the in- of inchoate were the L. negative.” It then gives examples of its use by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Winston Churchill. The OED seems to have less of a problem with “gruntled,” which it simply defines as “Pleased, satisfied, contented.”

What about legal dictionaries? Black’s Law Dictionary, checked on Westlaw, includes these definitions of “choate:”

1. Complete in and of itself. 2. Having ripened or become perfected.

That also is the general sense of the more complete discussion of the word in A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage found on LexisNexis, though there it is referred to as an “invented” positive form of “inchoate.” Both dictionaries point to “choate” as a term used for a type of lien. Here is part of that discussion from A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage:
The word has become more or less standard in the phrase choate lien, corresponding to inchoate lien . . . . Although the word is the product of incorrect etymology, is ugly and illogical, it would be futile to call for its obliteration from the legal vocabulary. It has supplied a name for a fairly arcane legal doctrine, which is unlikely to be renamed. Choate is recognized in legal literature as "an illegitimate back formation" (Plumb, Federal Liens and Priorities, 77 Yale L.J. 228, 230 [1967]), but it is used even by those who deprecate its origins.
Neither Black’s nor the legal dictionaries in LexisNexis included “gruntled.”

By the way, if you would like more details about the issues in the Hemi Group case, check out this preview from the SCOTUSblog.

State Tort Trials Statistics

The Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics has released a 2005 snapshot of state court tort trials: Tort Bench and Jury Trials in State Courts, 2005. Here is a description from the website:

Discusses tort cases concluded by a bench or jury trial in a national sample of jurisdictions in 2005. Topics include the types of tort cases that proceed to trial, the differences between tort cases adjudicated by judges and juries, and
the types of plaintiffs and defendants represented in tort trials. The report also covers plaintiff win rates, punitive damages, and the final award amounts generated in tort trial litigation. Lastly, trends are examined in tort trial litigation in the nation’s 75 most populous counties, based on comparable data in 1996, 2001, and 2005.

Highlights include the following:

  • Together, bench and jury trials accounted for an estimated 4% of all tort dispositions in 2005.
  • Punitive damages were sought in 9% of tort trials with plaintiff winners. The median punitive damage award was $55,000.
  • In the nation’s 75 most populous counties, the number of tort trials declined by about a third between 1996 and 2005.

Friday, November 6, 2009

King County Community Health Indicators

The Seattle & King County Public Health recently released a new web page with statistics on King County Community Health Indicators. Click on any of the indicators (e.g., prenatal care, suicide, smoking) and you get another page with detailed statistics by age, race or ethnicity, sex, and income level.

Consider smoking. Would you have guessed that the poorest people are three times as likely to smoke as those with incomes over $75,000? But the highest percentage of excessive drinking is in the highest income bracket. Being overweight, on the other hand, is less sensitive to income -- but it's much more common among women than among men.

There's often a link to comparison data. For example, you can compare King County's rate of adults who are physically inactive (14.9%) with Hennepin County (Minneapolis) (14.1%) and Clark County (Las Vegas) (26.6%).

Speaking of public health: Another online service is a database of restaurant health inspection records. Use it to look up your favorite (or not so favorite) hangouts. (I'm proud of my local Taco del Mar for its perfect scores -- when I get dinner there, it's not only tasty and convenient, but safe!)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Gallagher Law Library in the Spotlight

The Gallagher Law Library has been selected as the Spotlight federal depository library for November by the US Government Printing Office. Gallagher is the first law library to be recognized in this way.

Selected for "its strong support of public access to Federal depository legal and other information resources," the Law Library became a depository for federal government publications in 1969. But its commitment to serving the legal and government information needs of the public has been strong for more than a century.

The federal depository library program provides free government publications and materials to nearly 1,250 libraries around the country, including academic, court, public, and special libraries. In exchange, these libraries guarantee public access to government information to all users.

Many staff members contribute to the Library's successful participation in the depository program. They manage the receipt of publications, creating and maintaining library catalog records, subscribing to commercial products that facilitate use and identification of government publications, printing archival copies of electronic documents, and answering questions about and directing users to government information sources.

We appreciate GPO's recognition of our service.

To learn more about government publications in the Gallagher Law Library, visit our United States Government Publications page.