Friday, March 20, 2015

Let the Sunshine In: Open Meetings and Open Records in Washington State

Today is the last day of the annual Sunshine Week, a "celebration of access to public information." While you contemplate our gloomy spring weather (at least west of the Cascades), check out these Washington State sunshine laws and resources:
Interested in Federal open government resources? Check out the open government guide created by the UW Libraries and our 2014 Sunshine Week blog post on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Interested in actual sunshine? Well, we may or may not have sunbreaks this weekend, but the UW cherry trees are in bloom on the quad and worth a look no matter the weather.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Death Penalty Research Made Easy!

Researching death penalty laws and practices of a country can be a daunting task, but the Death Penalty Worldwide (DPW) website is a great starting point. Created by Professor Sandra Babcock (Cornell University Law School) in partnership with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, this website provides a multitude of death penalty statistics, research, and even legal analysis broken down by country and by issue. The DPW database focuses on countries that still retain the death penalty for ordinary offenses. Thus, over 90 countries are covered.

Death Penalty Worldwide website image
Death Penalty Worldwide Website

Big Money in Judicial Campaigns

Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Sue Bell Cobb decries the effect of money on judicial campaigns: I Was Alabama's Top Judge. I'm Ashamed by What I Had to Do to Get There. Politico, March/April 2015.

Cobb cites a 2014 report by Emory law professors Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang that found a strong link between campaign spending and ruling against criminal defendants: Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising and State Supreme Court Justices' Decisions in Criminal Cases.

Cobb is one of four former chief justices of Texas and Alabama who submitted an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold Florida's rule that bans direct solicitation by judicial candidates. The case is Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar (docket number 13-1499), which was argued in January. On the other side, the ACLU has an amicus brief arguing that the ban infringes free speech. For much more about the case and the arguments, see SCOTUSblog.

Brief Quality Makes a Difference

A fascinating study of briefs opposing summary judgment in a particular class of employment discrimination cases—a topic with conflicting cases within the circuit—found that a majority omitted available case law that would have countered the defendants' arguments. And it makes a difference: "while bad brief-writers lose summary judgment at a remarkably high rate (86%), good brief-writers do not (42%)."  Scott A. Moss, Bad Briefs, Bad Law, Bad Markets: Documenting the Poor Quality of Plaintiffs’ Briefs, Its Impact on the Law, and the Market Failure It Reflects, 63 Emory L.J. 59, 65 (2013).

Here's the author's abstract:
For a major field, employment discrimination suffers surprisingly low-quality plaintiffs’ lawyering. This Article details a study of several hundred summary judgment briefs, finding as follows: (1) the vast majority of plaintiffs’ briefs omit available caselaw rebutting key defense arguments, many falling far below basic professional standards with incoherent writing or no meaningful research; (2) low-quality briefs lose at over double the rate of good briefs; and (3) bad briefs skew caselaw evolution, because even controlling for win-loss rate, bad plaintiffs’ briefs far more often yield decisions crediting debatable defenses.

These findings are puzzling. In a major legal service market, how can clients persistently choose bad lawyers, lawyers persistently perform so poorly, and judicial and ethics authorities tolerate this situation? Answers include poor client information, ethics authorities’ limited ability or will to discipline bad lawyers, and two troubling lawyer behaviors: (1) overoptimistically entering the field without realizing, until suffering losses, that it requires intensive research and writing; and (2) knowingly litigating on the cheap, rather than expending briefing effort to maximize case value, because contingency-paid lawyers may profitably run “mills” and live off quick, small settlements. A survey of the worst brief-writers’ law firms hints that the problem may be a mix of the former (nonspecialists in over their heads) and the latter (knowingly litigating cheaply).

This Article offers the following reforms that, while no cure-all for a problem stemming from stubborn market forces, could help: (1) expanding educational efforts, including law school experiential learning, bar resource-sharing, and bar exam reform; (2) enhancing client access to information on lawyers by liberalizing ethics rules restricting expertise claims and public access to court files; (3) broadening the supply of competent lawyers by liberalizing rules restricting the standing to sue of discrimination “testers” and ethics rules on corporations owning law firms; and (4) toughening ethics enforcement against the worst offenders, who almost all go unpunished now.
There's lots to think about here, from many perspectives: employment discrimination law, civil procedure, access to justice, legal ethics, and (of course) legal research and writing.

Monday, March 16, 2015

LEGO Supreme Court Justices

UPDATE: A variation of this project has now been submitted to LEGO Ideas! Please see this post for more information.

Hopefully by now you've had the chance to check out Maia Weinstock's (deputy editor at MIT News) Legal Justice League: Women of the Supreme Court in LEGO:


Weinstock created the minifigures, featuring Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, in recognition of International Women's Day this year. This isn't Weinstock's first foray into creating unique LEGO minifigures--in the past she's created minifigures of female scientists, such as Temple Grandin:


Law Library Closed on Monday, March 23

When winter quarter finals end for UW School of Law students, the Law Library will operate on a reduced schedule.

March 21 - 23, Saturday - Monday: Closed
March 24 - 27, Tuesday - Friday: 8am - 5pm
March 28 & 28, Saturday & Sunday: Closed

The Reference Office will be open from 9am -12noon and 1 - 5pm March 24-27.

Regular hours resume when spring quarter classes begin on Monday, March 30.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Legal Research: Which Court is Binding?

Are you having trouble figuring out which courts’ rulings are binding for your particular legal issue? If so, check out Which Court is Binding? a guide drafted by the Writing Center at the Georgetown University Law Center. This guide is a useful tool in determining whether federal or state law applies, and then determining which court’s rulings are mandatory and which are persuasive.