Mootus: A New Forum for Legal Argument Online
BY Brendan Conley
Easy, instant crowdsourcing is one of the great boons of the online age, but attorneys have been slow to take advantage of it in their work. Some social networking websites, like LinkedIn, offer groups where legal strategies are sometimes submitted to the wisdom of the crowd, but legal research itself remains, for the most part, a solitary pursuit. Mootus is a startup that aims to change that.
Mootus bills itself as a forum for open, online legal argument. Users can anonymously submit an issue in the form of a question, along with a category, jurisdiction and deadline for responses. Other users can then submit pertinent citations, which users upvote or downvote depending on how relevant they think they are.
This system has several possible uses. Lawyers can use Mootus to get research input on issues in their current cases. Law students can use it to deepen their understanding of the methods of legal research. And attorneys, activists and the public can all debate important legal issues that are currently being tested in the courts.
To see how it works, let us look at a recent example.
A user submitted this question: “Are privately created regulatory standards, such as public safety codes, entitled to copyright protection when they have been incorporated by reference in a statute, regulation or ordinance?” This important question has been a matter of some public debate, with strong arguments on both sides. Since Mootus is primarily a forum for legal citations, the user submitted this issue in all jurisdictions — and other users submitted a variety of relevant citations, mostly from federal circuit courts.
The top-voted answer was a citation to Veeck v. S. Bldg Code Cong. Int'l Inc., a 2002 case from the Fifth Circuit. There, a citation description read, “Recognizing 'continuous understanding that “the law,” whether articulated in judicial opinions of legislative acts or ordinances, is in the public domain and thus not amenable to copyright.'” Six users upvoted the answer, and zero considered it off-base.
Voters may also add comments. One user wrote that the top-voted citation was on-point, but also cited an authority who called that decision “deeply flawed.”
Downvoted answers fall to the bottom of a page. One answer cited an 1834 U.S. Supreme Court case that addressed whether a reporter can hold a copyright to written court opinions. Three users downvoted the citation, with one pointing out that the issue at hand concerned privately created standards being incorporated into the law, not reports of court opinions.
One great advantage to the Mootus interface is that users are restricted to answering with a citation. Most lawyers are capable of prolific argument, and a forum could easily be overwhelmed with hot air. But the need to answer with a citation focuses answers.
Details and discussion are still considered; users are free to add an explanation of up to 200 characters. Then, the community can rank the most useful information for an attorney wishing to pursue the issue further.
For now, Mootus seems most useful as a way to seek input on broader legal questions. Questions that have recently emerged in court frequently receive thoughtful, useful responses. These discussions may be of particular use for attorneys who may be considering the cases in question for future litigation.
For example, personal injury attorneys in many different jurisdictions are watching recent texting-and-driving cases with interest. Can someone sending a text message be held liable if the recipient of the message reads it while driving and causes an accident? The issue has been presented to Mootus, and the top answer linked to a recent New Jersey appellate ruling. While the decision does not establish a precedent outside of that state, it provides one example of the ways the arguments were framed based on existing state laws against causing a distraction for a driver. Other, supporting answers cited less directly relevant cases that could provide analogous bases for liability.
In the future, Mootus will need to make a few changes to expand its useful range. Some cases are currently difficult to cite. Mootus provides a link to the full text of opinions for some citations, but that capability is not available for all court cases. That shortcoming is a symptom of a larger problem: although case law is public domain, legal opinions are published online in scattershot fashion, and they are often locked behind proprietary systems. The nonprofit Free Law Project provides case law for Mootus, and it is working to expand general access through its Court Listener service.
Most importantly, the forum will need to gain more users to engage in truly thorough and supportive discussion.
Mootus users are anonymous by default, but a user may choose to identify him- or herself. Users who submit high-quality answers (as determined by their fellow users' upvotes) earn status points. Theoretically, this influence could have real-world applications and build an attorney's reputation, but that will depend on the success of Mootus itself. For now, the emphasis on anonymity is a good way to make lawyers more comfortable with the idea of crowdsourcing their work.
Mootus is free to use but offers premium options. A $100 payment ensures that an issue will appear on the site. Unpaid issue submissions are suggestions, and the site decides whether to post each of them. A $10 monthly subscription fee buys unlimited access to the Mootus archive and a personalized library of monitored issues.
While it is too new to be called a success, Mootus is doing a lot of things right. Crowdsourced legal arguments have enormous potential. By allowing anonymous use and by restricting answers to citations, Mootus has created a framework to channel this potential into a tool upon which lawyers could come to rely.
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