|Oregon State Bar Bulletin FEBRUARY/MARCH 2012|
Tracking the Law and Writing About It
By Robert J. Ambrogi
In this month’s column, we look at three sites to help you keep up with new developments in the law, as well as one designed to simplify the task of research and writing.
Covering the Supreme Court
Thomson Reuters, the company that owns Westlaw, has been beefing up its coverage of legal affairs in recent years, with reporting and commentary available through the Thomson Reuters News & Insight website, http://newsandinsight.thomsonreuters.com/Legal/. As part of this push into enhanced legal coverage, the company recently launched a new feature devoted to covering the Supreme Court’s 2011-2012 term, called Case by Case: The U.S. Supreme Court, www.reuters.com/supreme-court/2011-2012.
The site uses interactive graphical tools to help users find information about the Court, the justices and the cases. Visually, the site is well designed. Across the top of the page are pictures of each of the justices. Hover over a picture for a quick snippet about the justice. For Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for example, the snippet says, “Obama appointee, court’s first Hispanic justice.”
The center part of the page highlights a particular case. There is a synopsis of the case and links to any relevant news articles or legal documents. Framing the synopsis on either side are brief write-ups on the lead attorneys for the petitioner and respondent, with links to their briefs.
Across the bottom of the page is an interactive timeline for the term. Click on a day to see the cases set for argument. Alternatively, you can use a color-coded index to filter the timeline to show only cases pertaining to a particular topic. Red signifies intellectual property cases; olive reveals only First Amendment cases.
While the visuals are clever, the site’s usefulness ends there for anyone who isn’t a Westlaw subscriber. Although the site provides links to briefs, decisions and various other documents, all the links lead to Westlaw. If you want to see the petitioner’s brief in a case, you’ll need a Westlaw subscription. If you want to see the court’s decision in a case, you’ll need a Westlaw subscription.
If this were content proprietary to Westlaw, I might understand this set up. But many if not most of these documents are publicly available online. The Supreme Court’s opinions are available directly from the court itself, as well as from any number of other sites. Briefs are available from the American Bar Association’s free site, Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, www.americanbar.org/publications/preview_home.html. All sorts of background and commentary are available from the preeminent Supreme Court source, SCOTUSblog, www.scotusblog.com.
The bottom line is this: If you want snappy visuals, visit the new Thomson Reuters Supreme Court site. If you want substantive information without having to pay for it, go instead to one of the other Supreme Court sites mentioned here.
Tracking Circuit Splits
As anyone who made it through law school knows, a split of opinion among the federal circuit courts is a strong indicator that the issue will make its way to the Supreme Court. A new blog, CircuitSplits.com, www.circuitsplits.com, is dedicated to providing timely reporting and analysis of circuit splits. It is written by Nicholas J. Wagoner, a Texas lawyer.
If you decide to visit the blog, I recommend you read his series of three posts from December in which he explains why circuit splits matter and are newsworthy (and blog-worthy). He also has a useful post on how to research circuit splits using terms and connectors.
There is at least one other blog about circuit splits, Split Circuits, http://splitcircuits.blogspot.com, written by A. Benjamin Spencer, a professor at Washington & Lee University School of Law.
Simplifying Research and Writing
A new website called Tabulaw, www.tabulaw.com, hopes to simplify the task of legal research and writing. As of this writing, the site is still in a private beta, which means you’ll have to fill out a request to obtain an invitation to try it out.
The site’s premise is that legal research tools are expensive, fragmented and redundant. It seeks to remedy this by combining key tools in a single location and making them all play nice together.
From within the Tabulaw site, you can search for a court opinion. (It uses Google Scholar to find cases.) Once you find a case, as you read through it, you can highlight passages. The text you highlight is automatically saved, complete with its citation. The passages are saved in Quote Bundles to which you can assign names and descriptions.
Once you have done your research and you are ready to start writing, you can do that from within Tabulaw also. You can create and edit a new document in Tabulaw, upload one from your computer, or import one from Google Docs. It appears that Tabulaw uses Google Docs as its document-editing base.
As you write, your quotes are displayed in a panel to the right of the document. Simply click any quote to insert it in your document, complete with its full citation (including page citation). You can also click a button to return to the case and see the quote in context. Any documents you create in Tabulaw can be downloaded to Microsoft Word.
Tabulaw has fairly rudimentary collaboration features at this point. You can share your Quote Bundles with other Tabulaw users or send them by email. You cannot share documents directly from within Tabulaw, as far as I could see.
There are shortcomings to Tabulaw. For one, there is no way to search statutes, which limits its usefulness for some. For another, it has no real word-processing features other than the ability to create and write documents. For any formatting and final touches, you would have to export the document.
That said, the ability to easily save, organize and use quotes from court cases could be a time saver. I could see this being a useful intermediary tool when writing a quick memorandum on a short deadline: Get it started on your computer, upload it to Tabulaw and incorporate the research, then download it and give it the finishing touches.
An Environmental Law Newsletter
I usually write about new resources of interest to the legal community, but here is one that has been around since 1995 — although only as a blog since last year. The Endangered Species & Wetlands Report, www.eswr.com, is a blog that covers the Endangered Species Act and federal laws to protect wetlands.
Edited by Steve Davies, ESWR started as a print newsletter in 1995, moved to the Web in 1997, and became a blog last year. It covers judicial, legislative and regulatory developments related to the topic. It includes links to full-text documents, news stories and other resources.
Current articles and documents are all free to access. Certain premium and archival materials require a subscription to access, which costs $125 a year.
For anyone with an interest in this topic, ESWR looks to be a useful and
fairly comprehensive resource.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Ambrogi, who practices law in Rockport, Mass., is the former editor of National Law Journal and Lawyers Weekly USA. He is internationally known for his writing about the Internet and technology. He is the author of three blogs, which can be read at www.legaline.com.
© 2012 Robert Ambrogi