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Critical Thinking Resources for Courts and Law
Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts maintains www.uscourts.gov and describes itself as the “administrative arm of the federal Judiciary.” Established by Congress in 1939, the agency is directed and supervised by the Judicial Conference of the U.S. – the policy-making body of the federal judiciary, which is in turn made up of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the chief justice of each circuit court, a representative from each district court, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade.

The U.S. Courts’ website provides information for and about the federal judiciary. Visitors can find an interactive map that links to circuit, district and bankruptcy court websites in the Court Links section. The website also has an educational publication that provides an overview of the federal judicial system, including a listing of common legal terms and a description of federal court structure. A more in-depth guide to the federal courts that is specifically geared toward journalists is also provided. Additionally, information regarding judicial vacancies, compensation and history can be found in the Judges and Judgeships section. Extensive statistics including judicial caseloads can be found in the comprehensive library section. The U.S. Courts website even explains procedures and interactions an ordinary citizen may encounter within the judicial system, such as filing a suit or finding a lawyer.

Comments: The U.S. Courts' website provides extensive and nonpartisan information regarding all aspects of the federal judiciary.

American Civil Liberties Union

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the organization, founded in 1920, is the “nation’s guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.” The ACLU consists of two entities, the main one, which primarily engages in legislative lobbying, and the ACLU Foundation, which focuses on the ACLU’s litigation. The group’s agenda is broad, including such issues as free speech, civil rights, capital punishment and many more.

With nearly 200 staff attorneys, more than 500,000 members and supporters and grants and donations that in 2007 totaled $32 million, the ACLU is the largest organization of its kind in the United States. The group has a presence in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

At ACLU.org, the organization’s main website, visitors can search (by issue and region) for legislative issues on the ACLU’s national agenda by looking at its Legislative Update. The group’s Congressional Scorecard provides tallies of how lawmakers voted on legislation that was a priority, either for or against, for the group. The site also offers summaries and updates of ACLU court cases. And at ACLU Multimedia, visitors can watch videos on various issues the organization has been involved in, including one that features interviews with former Guantanamo detainees.

The ACLU’s advocacy for First Amendment rights, equal protection, due process and the right to privacy is considered to be well to the left on the political spectrum. However, its dedication to First Amendment principles sometimes leads to its adoption of controversial positions. In 1977, for instance, it filed suit seeking to have several town ordinances in Skokie, Ill., thrown off the books: the laws barred marches by neo-Nazis. (The ACLU won that case the next year.)

Comments: The ACLU's positions usually, though not always, line up with those on left of the political spectrum.

Political Leanings: Liberal

American Enterprise Institute

The AEI describes itself as dedicated to “limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability and open debate.”

The AEI does not disclose donors but says that in 2003 it received 36 percent of its funding from individuals, 35 percent from foundations and 23 percent from corporations.

The link on the website to short publications leads to the organization’s briefer research reports and findings; visitors can also find resources classified by research area.
 
Comments: Its standards for factual accuracy are high, though its reports have a distinctly partisan tilt.

Political Leanings: Pro-business

American Immigration Lawyers Association

The American Immigration Lawyers Association is a professional organization of more than 10,000 immigration attorneys and legal professors. AILA members represent a variety of immigrants, including asylum seekers, entertainment personalities, families that wish to bring relatives to the United States and companies wanting to sponsor foreign workers’ entry to the United States.

Founded in 1946, the AILA is an “affiliated organization” of the American Bar Association. But while both organizations say they are nonpartisan, the AILA does advocate in favor of immigrant rights. The group was specifically established “to promote justice, advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, advance the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice, and enhance the professional development of its members,” its website says, and it clearly sees its goals as being most aligned with those of liberal Democrats. In its 2009 action plan, the AILA said: “A bi-partisan coalition will still be needed to pass major immigration reform – the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate will require 6-10 Republican votes, and the House majority will not enact immigration reform without the political ‘cover’ of at least 30-60 Republican votes.”

However, the AILA can be a valuable resource for visitors as well as its members. Its website features a page of Web resources. The site also hosts an immigration lawyer search function and offers viewers a database, albeit a limited one, of court cases and decisions relevant to U.S. immigration.

Comments: The AILA is a good source of information on immigration law; however, it, like most immigration organizations, is not unbiased. It is worth noting that the organization’s 2007 annual report reads: “No matter which party controls Congress, the potential for real, substantive immigration reform is limited by internal Republican party divisions, and by the 'rush to the center' of most Democrats.”

Political Leanings: Pro-immigrant rights

Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

The Brady Campaign is the most recent iteration of a gun-control group formed in 1974. The organization took its current name in 2001 from Jim and Sarah Brady. Jim Brady, press secretary to President Ronald Reagan, was shot and seriously injured in a 1981 assassination attempt on the president.

The Brady Campaign describes itself as “the nation’s largest, non-partisan, grassroots organization leading the fight to prevent gun violence.” The group is really two organizations: The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and The Brady Campaign. The Campaign lobbies on gun laws and gets involved in politics to help elect candidates who share its views. The Center focuses more on using the court system to achieve its goals and represents victims of gun violence and others.

The group gives scores to states depending on whether they have certain gun-control measures in place. Its summaries of what states have done in these areas are generally solid and up-to-date, and much more usable for the casual researcher than statutory language.

Comments: The Brady Campaign's pro-gun control perspective is counter to that of the National Rifle Association.

Political Leanings: Liberal, pro-gun control

Brookings Institution

Brookings is the oldest and one of the best-known of the Washington-based “think tanks,” tracing its origins back to 1916 and founder Robert Somers Brookings, a wealthy St. Louis businessman. Its scholars generally have very strong academic credentials.

Reports from the institute and its scholars can be viewed by research programs, policy centers and research projects. They fall mainly into the categories of competitiveness, education, migration, health care or energy security.

Brookings says it is funded by “foundations, corporations, and individuals, and to a lesser extent by endowment income.”

Comments: Brookings has a well-earned reputation for scholarly excellence. Its reports are, for the most part, clearly written and can be fine guides to understanding how government programs work, or don't work. It has a reputation for leaning slightly to the left.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Cato Institute

The Cato Institute describes its work as broadening public-policy debate on “individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace.” For the last decade, Cato has supported Social Security reform through private accounts and championed deregulation of the drug industry. Cato was founded in 1977 by Edward H. Crane, a chartered financial analyst and former vice president of Alliance Capital Management Group. Most of Cato’s funding comes from private foundations and individuals, with only a small amount from corporations.

Cato is thought of as a libertarian think tank, and its scholars tend to argue for free markets and against taxes and government regulation. It  also strongly rejects government infringement on individual rights.

Cato’s publications and reports can be explored by research area, which include defense and national security, constitutional issues, and a variety of domestic issues. The institute hosts a separate site focusing on Social Security.

Comments: Cato's research is thorough and well-documented, and advances a libertarian agenda.

Political Leanings: Libertarian

Center for American Progress

Founded in 2003 by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, the Center for American Progress describes itself as “progressive.” Many of its experts once worked in Democratic presidential administrations or for Democrats on Capitol Hill. According to its website, the center seeks to “combine bold policy ideas with a modern communications platform to help shape the national debate, expose the hollowness of conservative governing philosophy, and challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter.”

The center's focus covers a wide range of issues, including energy, health care, the economy, civil rights, immigration, welfare and others.
Unlike many think tanks, the center has a lobbying and advocacy offshoot, called the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The Action Fund describes itself as “the sister advocacy organization of the Center for American Progress.”

Comments: The center's website reflects its strong liberal bent.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Committee for Justice

The Committee for Justice says its mission is “to defend and promote constitutionalist judicial nominees to the federal courts and educate the public on the importance of judges in American life.” Its founder is C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush. Gray founded the Committee for Justice in 2002 in response to Senate Democrats blocking several of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.

The committee ran television and print advertisements on behalf of Miguel Estrada, William Pryor and Charles Pickering, who were among the most controversial of Bush’s nominees to the bench. The committee also ran advertisements opposing Senate candidate Ron Kirk from Texas and presidential nomination hopeful Sen. John Edwards in South Carolina for their opposition to judicial nominees that the committee favored. In 2009, it ran ads opposing President Barack Obama’s first nominee to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.
The Committee for Justice has a small budget. Its website reflects the fact that it was formed to generate support for Republican judicial nominees and offers little information that could be considered objective.

Comments: The committee provides a guide to the conservative position in Senate battles over judicial nominees.

Political Leanings: Conservative

Congressional Research Service

The Library of Congress houses the Congressional Research Service, “the public policy research arm of the United States Congress.” The CRS performs independent, nonpartisan and objective research for members of Congress and their staffs on a nearly endless array of issues. The Librarian of Congress appoints the director of the service, which has a large, knowledgeable staff and receives a sizable budget.

The CRS no longer releases its reports to the general public, but many can be found fairly easily online. The U.S. State Department and independent groups, including the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and the National Council for Science and the Environment post the full text of some CRS reports relating to each group’s area of interest. The Open CRS Network website has a search engine that combines the resources of several, though not all, of these sites. The public can also purchase reports from some websites. And if time permits, individuals can request paper copies of specific reports directly from their senator or representative.

The CRS is acclaimed for its objective and thorough analyses. Authors are aware that they are writing for an audience that includes both Republicans and Democrats, and they are meticulous about avoiding partisanship.

Consumer Federation of America

The CFA, formed in 1968, acts on behalf of consumers through “advocacy, research, education, and service.” The group has 300 member organizations – all nonprofit, pro-consumer groups. The CFA encourages federal and state officials to adopt pro-consumer policies, and it supports grassroots consumer movements and consumer cooperatives. Its Food Policy Institute advocates for a “safer, healthier and more affordable food supply.”

The group investigates a range of consumer issues in the areas of communications, energy, finance, food and agriculture, health and safety, and housing. Brochures, studies, fact sheets and testimony before government entities are available online, including material on legislative activity related to the group’s goals as well as ratings of cars based on their fuel economy. It is a voice for consumers generally vis-a-vis insurance companies, banks and credit-rating agencies, among other entities. The majority of the group’s income comes from corporate and private foundation grants. Membership dues and revenue from CFA conferences account for 15 percent of funding.

Comments: The CFA favors increased government regulation of industry, consumer products and the food supply.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Death Penalty Information Center

The Death Penalty Information Center is a nonprofit organization that publishes reports and conducts press briefings on issues concerning capital punishment. The DPIC says that it does not have a position on the death penalty “in the abstract.” However, the center notes that “we have been critical … of various aspects of the death penalty in the United States.” The website highlights problems with the way capital punishment is used.

Founded in 1990 by John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine and human rights advocate, the center’s major funders include the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Institute – which have funded liberal-leaning organizations – and the European Commission. The DPIC board includes the director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and several defense attorneys.

The DPIC site features reports and research on issues such as arbitrariness, costs, deterrence, international practices, mental illness and race. A database of executions is searchable by name, year, race, state and other criteria, and a state-by-state database includes information on death row inmates, executions, clemency and legislation. Visitors can see what crimes are capital offenses in each state and read about those who have been exonerated. The site includes a number of links to news articles, law reviews and other resources, and some information is available in Spanish.

Comments: The DPIC site includes a wealth of information and statistics on the death penalty. Reports reflect an anti-death penalty stance, highlighting the negative aspects of capital punishment.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Federal Bureau of Investigation

The FBI gathers and publishes U.S. crime statistics through its Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which was created in 1929 by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Among the UCR’s annual publications are “Crime in the United States,” “Hate Crime Statistics” and “Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted.”

More than 17,000 law enforcement agencies provide data to the FBI, and the goal of the UCR program is to supply agencies with dependable information on crime nationwide. The UCR site is also a valuable tool for researchers. Visitors can find crime statistics for states, metropolitan areas, cities with populations of more than 10,000, rural and suburban counties, and colleges and universities. Within the report summary of “Crime in the United States,” visitors can see a crime clock that breaks down how often each type of crime is committed and a map that shows the crime breakdown by region of the United States. The section titled “offenses reported” includes in-depth statistics such as race, sex and age of the perpetrators, and breakdowns for property, violent and hate crimes. The “special reports” section provides researchers with more specific studies, such as arrests of juveniles for drug abuse violations or violence against infants.

The National Incident-Based Reporting System, a separate data collection system, offers a more detailed look at each crime occurrence, with data on every incident and arrest in various categories. The NIBRS data have been used to produce reports such as an examination of white-collar crime or an analysis of the structure of family violence.

Comments: The website is a helpful and reliable source of crime statistics. Visitors can read the guidelines for reporting, defining and scoring a crime. The site does note that not all of the data it receives can be published due to computer issues, changes in record management systems and personnel shortages within individual agencies.

Federal Judicial Center

The Federal Judicial Center is the “educational and research agency for the federal courts.” Its website contains research on federal court operations, procedures and court history as well as educational resources for judges and court employees. Congress created the center in 1967 to study the court system and propose improvements to it. The chief justice of the United States chairs its board.

Profiles of all federal judges since 1789, histories of individual courts and summaries of landmark judicial legislation can be found in the Federal Judicial History section. The extensive publications section includes detailed guides – such as manuals on complex litigation and scientific evidence – to help lawyers, judges and judicial employees. The site also links to notices of class-action lawsuits, information about other prominent litigation, and helpful resources such as the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Supreme Court. Additionally, the center  lists and describes all educational programs attended by state and federal judges since 1900.

Comments: The Federal Judicial Center is a very useful resource for nonpartisan and comprehensive information regarding all aspects of the judiciary.

Political Leanings: Neutral

Guttmacher Institute

The Guttmacher Institute was founded in 1968 as the Center for Family Planning Program Development and was named after Alan Guttmacher, a former president of Planned Parenthood and distinguished obstetrician-gynecologist. It provides the most highly respected statistics on the sexual health of women and men. Its figures on abortion are widely cited by the media as well as by groups on both sides of the political aisle. Among the institute’s donors are Planned Parenthood, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Population Affairs, UNAIDS, the GlaxoSmithKline Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

While the Guttmacher Institute’s statistics are highly reliable, its approach to reproductive health may rub anti-abortion activists and supporters the wrong way. According to its mission statement, the Guttmacher Institute promotes “societal respect for and protection of personal decision-making with regard to unwanted pregnancies and births, as well as public and private-sector policies that support individuals and couples in their efforts to become responsible and supportive parents, maintain stable family structures and balance parenting with other roles.”

Comments: The Guttmacher Institute’s empirical findings are widely cited with good reason and should be trusted.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Heritage Foundation

The Heritage Foundation, one of the nation’s best-known think tanks on the right, says its mission is to “formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”

Heritage scholars generally argues for lower taxes, less spending for social programs and less government regulation of business. When Heritage criticizes Republicans it is often for being too liberal: It supported President Bush’s first-term tax cuts, for example, but criticized his expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs.

Comments: Facts cited by Heritage are generally solid and well-documented, though quite often they reflect only one side of an ideological debate.

Political Leanings: Strongly conservative

Innocence Project

The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 and is dedicated to “exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.” It is a nonprofit legal clinic directly affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and was founded by attorneys Peter J. Neufeld and Barry C. Scheck.

The Innocence Project employs a full-time staff of attorneys as well as Cardozo law students. In most cases, inmates are either directly represented by members of the Innocence Project staff or the staff provided critical assistance in the inmates’ efforts to have their convictions reversed.

The website provides resources to explain what the project terms “serious flaws” in the nation’s justice system. It explains how eyewitness misidentification, false confessions and inadequate legal representation contribute to the wrongful conviction of “scores of innocent people.” The Innocence Project also provides resources for those interested in discovering ways in which the system could be changed for the better, and the site features profiles of those who have been exonerated using DNA evidence.

The project is not an anti-death penalty group but focuses on overturning wrongful convictions and promoting changes in the administration of justice that make them less likely.

Comments: The Innocence Project is a reliable source of information that addresses a number of ways in which the criminal justice system is subject to tampering and human error.

Justice at Stake

Justice at Stake is a national, nonpartisan organization that aims to “keep our courts fair and impartial.” Launched in February 2002, the group is composed of more than 45 judicial, legal and citizen organizations with the common goal of educating the public on the importance of limiting the influence of outside interest groups on the U.S. judicial system. The organization is funded by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Joyce Foundation, the Moriah Fund and the Open Society Institute, and accepts individual donations.

The organization uses its website to inform the public of what it perceives to be threats to the independence of the nation’s courts and judges, including escalating spending by various interests on state judicial races. The site has information on how each state selects its judges (merit selection or election, with variations) and judicial issues in each state. Other offerings include podcasts, a current issues section, a glossary of terms used in the legal system, and biennial reports analyzing the most recent round of state judicial races.

Comments: Justice at Stake provides valuable information about the judicial selection process and attempts by outside interest groups to influence the operations of state and federal courts.

Political Leanings: None

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights says it is “the nation’s premier civil rights coalition,” and it has “coordinated the national legislative campaign on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957.” It was founded in 1950 by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Arnold Aronson of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. Today, the LCCR has more than 180 member organizations including People for the American Way, AARP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO and constituent unions, the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Organization for Women.

Its website offers reports on such issues as fair housing and the status of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In addition to organizing various civil and voting rights campaigns, the LCCR is one of the main groups monitoring judicial nominations from the liberal point of view. The website for that campaign offers articles and op-eds, fact sheets, and profiles of current and past nominees. The LCCR also provides overviews of civil rights cases on the Supreme Court’s docket each term.

Comments: Most material on this site has a strong liberal, pro-civil rights slant, though with that in mind it can be useful.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Librarians’ Internet Index

Librarians’ Internet Index is a compendium of links and descriptions of websites that have been selected by a team of librarians. Publicly funded by the states of California and Washington, the site includes more than 20,000 entries that focus on a host of topics, from politics and legal issues to film and sports. LII is produced by six paid consultants who are assisted by more than 40 librarian contributors.

Started by a reference librarian in the early 1990s, LII is now under the management of the Peninsula Library System, a consortium of public and community college libraries in California. In 2002, the site launched a more limited partnership with Washington State Library, and it offers numerous websites of interest to those two states. Most of LII’s money comes from the California State Library, but site managers have been exploring other funding sources.

Users can subscribe to a free weekly newsletter that highlights various websites. It’s also possible to search the site or browse the links by 14 main topic areas and hundreds of subtopics. Visitors can narrow each list of sites by clicking on additional topics. The websites that LII features must meet various criteria, which include whether information is available for free and whether it’s credible.

Comments: LII is a valuable tool for researching any number of topics. The sheer volume of vetted websites is impressive. The amount of material, however, sometimes leads to rather eclectic lists of sites for a given topic and some misclassification. Specific searches yield the best results.

Political Leanings: None

NARAL Pro-Choice America

NARAL Pro-Choice America describes itself as “the leading national advocate for personal privacy and a woman’s right to choose.”
NARAL monitors federal and state-level legislation and court cases on abortion, birth control, sex education and related topics, posting issue briefs designed to inform and marshal activists. It also rates House and Senate members on their voting records.

Comments: NARAL Pro-Choice America is a prominent advocate of abortion rights, and its website provides an up-to-date guide to developments on that issue from the group's point of view.

Political Leanings: Liberal, favors right to abortion

National Center for State Courts

In 1971, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger advocated the creation of a “central source for the state courts,” which led to the birth of the National Center for State Courts. The NCSC prides itself on “improving the administration through leadership and service to the state courts and serving as an information clearinghouse so that innovations in one court can benefit all courts.” The NCSC does this by conducting research, publishing reports and hosting educational programs about court operations.

The center’s day-to-day operations include collecting and interpreting the latest data on the operations of state courts as well as providing information to state court leaders on issues of national policy. The website’s resources include the work of the Court Statistics Project, which produces annual analyses of trial and appellate courts, short reports on specific issues, diagrams of each state’s judicial structure, and detailed statistics on court systems and caseloads. Visitors to the site can search a database for information by state, type of filings (civil, felony or domestic relations) and population (such as adult or juvenile cases). NCSC also publishes books on court trends and one on judicial salaries, and it maintains a Mass Tort Clearinghouse that contains reports and state resources on the subject and serves as a forum for mass tort judges.

The site also includes information on NCSC’s special projects to help courts improve in areas such as management of juries and the protection of children in foster care. Visitors can search the NCSC library catalog to find resources on judicial administration or browse the Topics A-Z section for information on specific issues, such as civil litigation, federal relations and sentencing. The NCSC is funded by contributions from individuals; law firms; and corporations and foundations, such as Ford Motor Co., General Electric, Pfizer, Sara Lee Corp., Shell Oil Co. and Wal-Mart.

Comments:The website is a great source for all things related to state courts.

National Conference of State Legislatures

A bipartisan organization for state, commonwealth and territorial legislators and their staffs, the National Conference of State Legislatures “provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues.” The organization advocates the interests of state governments.

The NCSL’s website contains information about the issues state governments are facing, such as education, environmental protection, transportation, criminal justice and state-tribal relations. Visitors to the site can access various reports, including summaries of which states enacted certain types of legislation on, for example, gambling or immigration. The site also contains information on state elections and election laws.

The “GrassCatcher” page is a daily roundup of state and policy news. Visitors can listen to NCSL’s podcast and request a personalized daily or weekly e-mail on specified policy topics.

Comments: The website is a good resource for information on the status of state laws on various subjects

National Rifle Association

The National Rifle Association, one of the nation’s oldest advocacy groups, was formed in 1871 to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” Since that time, the NRA has evolved into the largest gun-rights lobbying organization in the United States, with about 4.3 million members, according to its website.

The NRA describes itself as an organization committed to the promotion of firearm education, training and marksmanship. It has consistently defended its interpretation of the Second Amendment, arguing that attempts by the government to regulate arms are unconstitutional The NRA’s political involvement dates back to 1934, when it formed a legislative affairs division, which evolved into the group’s Institute for Legislative action in 1975. The NRA-ILA is the lobbying arm of the group and “is committed to preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” The NRA-ILA provides action alerts to its members and fact sheets on gun legislation, as well as candidate grades and endorsements that are available to NRA members on the group’s website.

Comments: The NRA offers a great deal of information on firearms and marksmanship. However, the information reflects its opposition to gun regulation and restriction in any form.

Political Leanings: Conservative, favors fewer restrictions on guns

People for the American Way

People for the American Way says it favors “pluralism, individuality, freedom of thought, expression and religion, a sense of community, and tolerance and compassion for others.” PFAW was founded in 1981 by Norman Lear, Barbara Jordan, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, and Andrew Heiskell, in part as a response to the political efforts of religious figures Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

People for the American Way engages in numerous projects, many of which focus on civil liberties, the separation of church and state, voting rights, and judicial nominations.

Its website offers a number of tools, most of which are more useful to activists than researchers. These include a state-by-state guide to news and organizations of potential interest to liberal activists, profiles of prominent conservative activist organizations, and an archive of reports produced by the organization.

Comments: Because PFAW is a prominent liberal advocacy organization, its reports tilt in a predictable direction, and some of their documents blur the line between a press release and a research report. While its website offers like-minded activists some innovative tools, independent researchers would be well-advised not to rely exclusively on the site’s content.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Project Vote Smart

Project Vote Smart is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that gathers and organizes information on candidates for political office. Vote Smart seeks to discover where candidates stand on any number of issues by scouring public voting records, public statements and biographical information, by monitoring ratings of candidates given by more than 100 competing special-interest groups, and by sending its own detailed questionnaires to candidates through its National Political Awareness Test.

By simply entering their ZIP code, visitors to the site can pull up information on their elected officials and candidates. The site also allows individuals to search specifically for any politician’s voting record, campaign finances, and biographical and contact information.

Additionally, the site compiles rankings of officials done by various interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, the NAACP and the AFL-CIO. There is also a database of officials’ speeches and statements searchable by keyword.

Comments: The website is well organized and easy to use. Unfortunately, many candidates decline to fill out Vote Smart's questionnaires.

Political Leanings: None

Public Citizen

Public Citizen is a consumer advocacy group that was founded in 1971 by Ralph Nader, a liberal activist and later a Green Party presidential candidate. The group says it works for “openness and democratic accountability in government, for the right of consumers to seek redress in the courts; for clean, safe and sustainable energy sources; for social and economic justice in trade policies; for strong health, safety and environmental protections; and for safe, effective and affordable prescription drugs and health care.”

The organization has six divisions: Auto Safety, Congress Watch, Energy Program, Global Trade Watch, Health Research Group and Litigation Group. It has been instrumental in a number of high-profile consumer advocacy causes. Public Citizen activists helped in the push to get airbags required in all vehicles, for instance, and the group fought to get Reye’s Syndrome warnings on aspirin bottles. Toy safety has been another area of focus for the group. Its worstpills.org site offers detailed information about pharmaceuticals the group considers unsafe, but full access to this information requires a paid subscription.

The Public Citizen website can be an invaluable source of information on consumer safety issues, and in some areas the group does its own research. Its Center for Auto Safety, for example, developed its own roof crush test for cars.

Public Citizen is pro-consumer and often critical of corporations and government. Don’t expect to see the views of the private sector represented here. The group does not accept donations from corporations, professional associations or government agencies, though it has received contributions from labor unions. In 2008, more than half of its funding came from individual donations, with about one-sixth coming from grants. Public Citizen’s Form 990 tax records are available on its website.

Comments: Public Citizen's research is often thorough and detailed, though the group has an anti-corporate, pro-regulatory point of view.

Political Leanings: Liberal

Social Science Research Council

The Social Science Research Council is a New York-based “independent not-for-profit research association” that brings the work of academic social scientists to contemporary social problems. Recent projects include studying the causes of state violence, fostering understanding of Muslim communities and analyzing the human impact of Hurricane Katrina.

The staff and affiliated scholars of the Social Science Research Council are largely professional academic social scientists. About three-quarters of the board of directors are professors at respected universities. The SSRC says it is funded “from a range of private foundations and public institutions.” Documents available on the website show that its largest contributors include the Mellon, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the U.S. State Department.

The SSRC currently organizes its work into four main areas: Global Security and Cooperation, Knowledge Institutions, Migration and The Public Sphere. SSRC’s website contains online articles written by staff members and a quarterly journal featuring work by independent scholars working on SSRC-related projects.

Comments: The Social Science Research Council is a clearinghouse for academic work in the social sciences. Its reports are, for the most part, free from partisan slant. They are fine sources of information, though they may be more technical and jargon-filled than reports from "think tanks" like the Brookings Institution.

Political Leanings: Neutral

USA.gov

USA.gov calls itself “the official U.S. gateway to all government information.” The U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications oversees the website, which offers a library of links to government agencies, information about particular laws and regulations, and data and statistics. Visitors can get pertinent links classified by topic and access links to state and local governments as well.

Comments: USA.gov can be a good place to begin for researchers who are unsure of where to look first.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia where articles may be written or edited by any user who creates a free account. It offers a vast amount of easily accessible information; the English version contained more than 3.2 million articles as of March 2009. But it can’t guarantee accuracy and sometimes has been dramatically wrong.

Individuals who write and edit articles for Wikipedia are volunteers. In theory, they bring a vast collective knowledge to bear and quickly discover and correct any biased or inaccurate entries. Advocates say this bottom-up approach produces a product that rivals traditional, top-down encyclopedias in which articles are written by individual experts chosen by professional editors. Indeed, a study in the December 15, 2005, journal Nature reported that in a sample of 42 entries on scientific topics, its experts found 162 errors in Wikipedia compared with 123 errors in Britannica. However, Britannica later challenged the Nature study as “fatally flawed” and filled with “flagrant errors.”

The weakness of Wikipedia’s anybody-can-edit policy was demonstrated dramatically when a false biographical entry on John Seigenthaler Sr., former editorial director of USA Today, went uncorrected for four months in 2005. It claimed Seigenthaler had a role in the assassinations of former President John Kennedy and his brother Robert. Those false claims were the work of a 38-year-old employee of a Nashville delivery service, Brian Chase, who had posted the libels as a joke and who later apologized to Seigenthaler. Numerous other instances of false Wikipedia entries have come to light since.

Wikipedia’s own founder, Jimmy Wales, publicly cautions students against citing it as an authoritative source. In June 2006, at a conference sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, he said that he gets about 10 e-mails a week saying, “Please help me. I got an F on my paper because I cited Wikipedia.” Wales said those comments make him think to himself: “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”

Wikipedia is “pretty good,” Wales said, “but you have to be careful with it. It’s good enough knowledge, depending on what your purpose is.”

Comments: Wikipedia is a useful resource when beginning research on an unfamiliar topic, but it's not always reliable. Information needs to be checked against original sources, but this is often difficult due to a frequent lack of footnotes.

Political Leanings: None