myU OneStop


Unit's home page.

Catherine Cumming, MJLST Staff Member

As 2015 begins, many worry that the Republican majority in both the House and Senate will adversely effect energy policy over the next few years. With a scheduled Senate committee hearing and vote this week on the Keystone XL pipeline and pledges to "delay or derail the Obama administration's clean air proposals," these worries are justified. However, hydropower, the United States' largest renewable energy resource provides hope for U.S. energy policy through bipartisan legislature and industry aimed at harnessing small-scale hydropower on existing infrastructure.

In 2013, the legislature unanimously passed the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act (H.R. 267) and the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act (H.R.678). H.R. 267 was passed in an effort to streamline the Federal Energy Reserve Commission's (FERC) regulatory process and promote the development of small-scale hydropower projects. H.R. 267 and H.R. 678 "hit a rare bipartisan sweet spot" because they "shrank federal bureaucracy" and increased the potential for renewable energy production through the utilization of existing infrastructure. H.R. 678 was passed to expedite "small hydropower development at existing Bureau of Reclamation-owned canals, pipelines, aqueducts, and other manmade waterways."

While proponents of hydropower are pleased with the Act, many, especially small-scale producers, are looking for more from the Republican-controlled legislature. The bills and their legislative history focus heavily on the number of unutilized dams in the U.S. as well as the potential for micro hydropower production. While the bills are helpful in increasing the development of small-scale hydropower, further legislature is needed to ease the regulatory process. In a recent NPR story on hydropower legislation, Kurt Johnson, head of the Colorado Small Hydropower Association, described the bills as "a kitchen knife gently cutting the government's red tape, when what is really needed is a machete." However, even with a Republican controlled House and Senate, taking a "machete" to FERC's regulatory process is unlikely. This February, FERC's amended regulations conforming to the bills become effective, easing the regulatory process for qualifying small-scale hydropower facilities.

Despite recent reform to the hydropower regulatory regime and bipartisan recognition that hydropower is an underdeveloped resource, 2014 showed a shift in hydropower and energy policy. Traditionally, hydropower has been the United States' largest renewable energy source, but in 2014, annual non-hydropower renewable generation usurped hydropower generation for the first time. In a recent report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected decrease of 4.4% in conventional hydropower generation, but a 5.1% increase in non-hydropower renewables, including wind, solar, and geothermal. The 2014 removal of the Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State highlighted another shift in hydropower, as large-scale hydropower projects and their externalities are under scrutiny. As a result of this heightened scrutiny and the potential for unutilized infrastructure on America's waterways, the hydropower industry and legislature is looking to implement smaller, noncontroversial projects.

Though hydropower generation decreased in 2014, the legislature recognizes that there is tremendous growth potential for hydropower in America's future. In fact, the new Chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senator Lisa Murkowski, is on the record for calling hydropower an "undeveloped resource." Senator Murkowski's statement is supported by many recent studies, which indicate the potential for increased hydropower generation and job growth in the United States. In addition to its potential for the development of new, clean energy generation and jobs, small-scale hydropower legislation provides renewed hope for energy policy in a Republican-controlled legislature.

Commercial Drones: What's a Business to do?

|

Neal Rasmussen, MJLST Staff Member

Since the March 2014 decision by administrative law judge Patrick Geraghty, the legality of using a drone for commercial purposes has been up for debate. Geraghty held that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) could not regulate the use of drones for commercial purposes under the current regulatory regime because a drone could not be considered an "aircraft" under 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a) therefore could not be in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations.

The FAA's ability to regulate commercial drones came to the forefront when Raphael Pirker, a professional photographer, was paid by the University of Virginia to provide aerial photographs and video, which was accomplish by using a small drone. The FAA claimed the drone was operated in "a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another" in violation of 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a) and assessed a $10,000 penalty. Pirker promptly challenged this penalty arguing his drone was not an "aircraft" and could not be in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations. Geraghty agreed, finding that the definition of "aircraft" as defined in 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a) (6) ("any contrivance invented, used or designed to navigate or fly in, the air") and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1 ("a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air") did not include model aircraft or drones.

This decision left a gaping hole in the FAA's enforcement power and was welcomed by businesses using commercial drones due to their ability to now fly without fear of penalties. Understandably, the decision was immediately appealed by the FAA. On appeal the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reversed the decision by finding that drones did meet the definition of "aircraft" as defined in 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1, thus Pirker could be subject to penalties for violation of 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a). The NTSB remanded the case in order to determine if Pirker's operation was in a careless or reckless manner warranting the $10,000 penalty.

In an effort to legally integrate drones into the National Airspace System (NAS), the FAA has since allowed businesses to file for exemptions under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. These exemptions are acting as a gap filler until the FAA releases their proposed regulations for small drones, which are expected later this year. To date, thirteen Section 333 exemptions have been granted by the FAA. The most prevalent industry to be granted an exemption is the film industry, totaling seven of the thirteen. Other industries include construction, real estate, agriculture, and surveying. The number of exemptions is expected to grow, as the FAA has received over 200 applications for exemptions. However, the number of drones in the sky is not expected to skyrocket anytime soon due to the length of time and expense needed in order to obtain a Section 333 exemption which limits the number of companies that can apply and be granted an exemption.

Although not ideal, the exemption process is a major step in the right direction for the FAA as it finally begins to work with, not against, businesses to fully integrate drones into the NAS. Full integration into the NAS, however, will not occur until final regulations are released later this year. Even after regulations are released it could take a few years to work out all of the logistics of using drones for commercial purposes. In any event, don't expect your Amazon package to be delivered by drones anytime soon. Stay tuned!

Biosimilar Drugs Gaining Traction with the FDA

|

Ethan Mobley, MJLST Staff Member

Recently, an FDA-commissioned panel recommended the Administration approve a cancer fighting drug developed by Novartis called EP2006. The recommendation is significant because if the FDA follows the panel's advice and approves the drug, it will be the first time the FDA has approved a "biosimilar" drug under the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act (BPCI Act). A biosimilar drug is a drug that is "interchangeable" with or "highly-similar" to a biological drug already licensed by the FDA. In the words of the FDA, "[a] biological product may be demonstrated to be 'biosimilar' if data show that the product is 'highly similar' to the reference product notwithstanding minor differences in clinically inactive components and there are no clinically meaningful differences between the biological product and the reference product in terms of safety, purity and potency." Interestingly, a biosimilar drug is not considered to be a generic version of its already-approved counterpart-- only bioequivalent drugs could be generics. Nonetheless, biosimilar drugs are still desirable for consumers because they are subject to an expedited approval process compared to their already-approved counterpart. Such drugs would be readily substitutable by a pharmacist without requiring the prescriber's permission.

In this case, the panel advised the FDA that EP2006 is biosimilar to Amgen's medication, Nuopogen (filgrastim), which is used to boost white-blood cell production in the body. Unfortunately, Neupogen is predictably expensive. But, introduction of EP2006 into the market would make cancer-fighting medication more price-accessible for many patients. Such a decrease in price would necessarily follow from increased competition for a white blood cell-producing drug and the reduced development costs of EP2006 attributable to the expedited approval process under the BPCI Act. Ideally, a groundbreaking approval of EP2006 under the BPCI Act would also pave the way for other price-accessible medication meant to treat all sorts of ailments.

Ke M. Huang, MJLST Lead Articles Editor

As a second-year law student, I met an energy law attorney who told me that sometimes his job felt like mediating between two parents. Two parents butting heads.

The more recent legal developments in the cellulosic ethanol industry since the publication of my student note in the Volume 15, Issue 2 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology echo the words of the attorney I met. In the note--published in Spring 2014 and entitled A Spoonful of Sugarcane Ethanol--I argue that the U.S. should enact tax benefits to spur cellulosic ethanol based on existing Brazilian tax benefits for sugarcane ethanol. Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is a fuel fermented from renewable resources. In the case of cellulosic ethanol, the resource is vegetative and yard waste; in the case of sugarcane ethanol, the resource is sugarcane juice.

Unlike the note, which focuses on tax benefits, the recent developments in the cellulosic ethanol industry center on blending mandates, both in the U.S. and Brazil. Under these mandates, motor fuel--which contains mostly gasoline--must be blended with a certain amount of ethanol. The U.S. motor fuel mandate is the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). RFS, which generally requires the petroleum industry to blend in motor fuel specific amounts for cellulosic ethanol, was already subject to litigation in American Petroleum Institute v. EPA, 706 F.3d 474 (D.C. Cir. 2013). However, the concerned industries of that case, primarily the petroleum industry and the cellulosic ethanol industry, continue to disagree. Broadly speaking, as further elaborated in this Bloomberg BNA blog entry, the petroleum industry takes the position that the RFS is unworkable. To much the vexation of the cellulosic ethanol industry. What makes the recent development more interesting is that, since early 2014, the cellulosic ethanol production seemed to have increased. Extending the metaphor of fighting parents, it is as if the ethanol parent continues to grasp the motor fuel teen, a teen that has grown bulkier in size, when the petroleum parent is ready to send the teen off to college.

In Brazil, a similar "family tale" ensues. In late 2014, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed the legislation to increase Brazil's blending percentage of ethanol from 25% to 27.5%. Still, the semi-public petroleum producer Petrobras expressed concern that, before the change in the mandate can be put in effect, more study is needed. These articles further explain these events (1)(2). As such, in this "family," the parents are at a deadlock.

On a more serious tone, as I reread my student note, I would like to make two corrections. I apologize for the misspelling of Ms. Ruilin Li's name on page 1117, and for the missing infra notations on page 11141 (notes 218 to 221).

Erin Fleury, MJLST Managing Editor

Earlier this year, the general public became acutely aware of the Heartbleed security bug which exposed vast amounts of encrypted data from websites using OpenSSL technology (estimated to affect at least 66% of active websites). Software companies are still fixing these vulnerabilities but many servers remain vulnerable and surely victims could continue to suffer from these data breaches long after they occurred. While Heartbleed, and the fact that it was around for nearly two years prior to detection, is troubling by itself, it also raises concerns about the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), 18 U.S.C. §1030, and white-hat hackers.

The CFAA prohibits "intentionally accessing a computer without authorization or exceed[ing] authorized access" and thereby "obtain[ing] information from a protected computer." See § 1030(a)(2). It would appear that the Heartbleed bug operates by doing exactly that. In very simplistic terms, OpenSSL authorizes limited requests for information but Heartbleed exploits a flaw to cause systems to send back far more than what is intended. Of course, the CFAA is meant to target people who use exploits such as this to gain unauthorized access to computer systems, so it would seem that using Heartbleed is clearly within the scope and purpose of the CFAA.

The real problem arises, however, for people interested in independently (i.e. without authorization) testing a system to determine if it is still susceptible to Heartbleed or other vulnerabilities. With Heartbleed, the most efficient way to test for the bug is to send an exploitive request and see if the system sends back extra information. This too would seem to fall squarely within the ambit of the CFAA and could potentially be a violation of federal law. Even testing a website which has been updated so that it is no longer vulnerable could potentially be a violation under §1030(b)("attempting to commit a violation under subsection (a)").

At first glance it might seem logical that no one should be attempting to access systems they do not own, but there are a number of non-nefarious reasons someone might do so. Perhaps customers may simply wish to determine whether a website is secure before entering their personal information. More importantly, independent hackers can play a significant role in finding system weaknesses (and thereby helping the owner make the system more secure), as evidenced by the fact that many major companies now offer bounty programs to independent hackers. Yet those who do not follow the parameters of a bounty program, or who discover flaws in systems without such a program, may be liable under the CFAA because of their lack of authorization. Furthermore, the CFAA has been widely criticized for being overly broad because, among other reasons, it does not fully distinguish between the reasons one might "exceed authorization." Relatively minor infractions (such as violating the Terms of Service on MySpace) may be sufficient to violate federal law, and the penalties for fairly benevolent violations (such as exploiting security flaws but only reporting it to the media rather than using the obtained information for personal gains) can seem wildly disproportional to the offense.

These security concerns are not limited to websites or the theft of data either. Other types of systems could pose far greater safety risks. The CFAA's definition of a "protected computer" in § 1030(e)(1-2) applies to a wide range of electronics and this definition will only expand as computers are integrated into more and more of the items we use on a daily basis. In efforts to find security weaknesses, researchers have successfully hacked and taken control of implantable medical devices or even automobiles. Merely checking a website to see if it is still susceptible to Heartbleed is unlikely to draw the attention of the FBI, so in many ways these concerns can be dismissed for the simple reason that broad enforcement is unlikely and, of course, many of the examples cited above involved researchers who had authorization. Yet, the CFAA's scope is still concerning because of the chilling effect it could have on research and overall security by dissuading entities from testing systems for weaknesses without permission or, perhaps more likely, by discouraging individuals from disclosing these weaknesses when they find them.

Without question, our laws should punish those who use exploits (such as Heartbleed) to steal valuable information or otherwise harm people. But the CFAA also seems to apply with great force to unauthorized access which ultimately serves a tremendous societal good and should be somewhat excusable, if not encouraged. The majority of the CFAA was written decades ago and, while there have been recent efforts to amend it, it remains a highly-controversial law. Surely, issues surrounding cybersecurity are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. It will be interesting to see how courts and lawmakers react to solve these challenging issues in an evolving landscape.

Somnophilia, The "Sleeping Beauty" Disorder

|

Becky Huting, MJLST Editor

To date, at least 19 women have come forward accusing Bill Cosby of some type of sexual abuse. The majority of the women have told similar stories that involve some variant of being drugged, sexually assaulted, or being drugged and also sexually assaulted by Cosby. The New York Times recently published a piece entitled "When a Rapist's Weapon is a Drug" that talks about a particular kind of paraphilia that some hypothesize is present in Cosby: a sexual deviation that involves drugging and raping unconscious partners. While it is important to note there is no indication of any formal diagnoses of Cosby (nor of criminal charges), this narrative has opened the dialogue about the contours of sexual disorder diagnosis and what it might mean in our legal regime.

The DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is authored by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and offers a standardized classification of mental disorders. According to the APA, the DSM is "intended to be applicable in a wide array of contexts and used by clinicians and researchers of many different orientations (e.g., biological, psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, interpersonal, family/systems)." The DSM's 5th Edition (DSM 5) is the 2013 update to the APA tool, superseding the last (DSM-IV-TSR), which was published in 2000.

Paraphilic disorders are defined by an unusual sexual preference that becomes compulsive. The DSM 5 contains eight distinct groups of disorders that constitute paraphilia. They include: exhibitionistic disorder, fetishistic disorder, frotteuristic disorder (arousal from touching or rubbing against a stranger), pedophilic disorder, sexual masochism disorder, sexual sadism disorder, transvestite disorder, and voyeuristic disorder.

Now returning to Cosby: date rape incidents involving drugs being dosed to victims are very common. Alcohol is the most commonly used drug in sexual assaults, but some perpetrators use so-called "knock-out" drugs. Experts view the motives for the former simple opportunism, but some of the latter category of druggers have a different motive in mind: they like unresponsive partners. This preference for unconscious partners, and the erotic arousal dependent upon intruding upon an unresponsive partner, and sometimes waking the person, is being labeled "sleeping beauty syndrome" or "Somnophilia." Somnophilia is a less common compulsion, but under a more common umbrella of a motive guided by coercion where the perpetrator is aroused by domination of their drugged partner.

According to Dr. Michael First, a psychiatrist and editorial consultant on the new DSM 5, the kind of coercion and domination achieved by drugging a partner is common enough that the APA actually contemplated adding it as a distinct diagnosis as a paraphilia disorder, but the idea was shelved in part because of concerns that doing so would give rapists added recourse in legal cases. This should be of interest for legal practitioners: it begs the question - should doctors be thinking about legal implications when they classify disorders? If they are indeed guided by what might be a legal defense, one could imagine the whole composition of the DSM changing tomorrow. Just a couple examples come quickly to mind. Schizophrenia is a widely accepted mental disorder included on the DSM, and yet is not infrequently used to bolster a legal defense for very horrific crimes. Consider also sleep-walking disorders. These too are on the DSM 5, and yet, criminal defendants have been known to use sleep-walking as a legal defense for equally ghastly crimes. It seems incongruous to say that leaving these kind of "excusing" mental disorders off is the policy here. They are already on the DSM, and criminal defendants have used them for quite some time. If the APA is willing to sacrifice classifying valid mental disorders in the name of some sense of legal responsibility, they must also consider the consequences for the field of psychiatry and the name of treatment.

Clearly here the concern by the American Psychiatric Association is that giving disorders like Somnophilia a name legitimizes it - those ostensibly like Bill Cosby will now have a diagnosis to stand behind in court. They can say: "it wasn't my fault, it's my disposition. I have a disorder." (It is also unclear that a jury would give any sympathetic weight or credence to this). But the clear question is whether lawyers want doctors doing the legal work for them behind the scenes. Will psychiatry and its patients actually benefit by this kind of legal policy gut-checking, or should we just ask politely ask doctors to do what they do best - classify, diagnose, and treat?

The Limits of Free Speech

|

Paul Overbee, MJLST Editor

A large portion of society does not put much thought into what they post on the internet. From tweets and status updates to YouTube comments and message board activities, many individuals post on impulse without regard to how their messages may be interpreted by a wider audience. Anthony Elonis is just one of many internet users that are coming to terms with the consequences of their online activity. Oddly enough, by posting on Facebook Mr. Elonis took the first steps that ultimately led him to the Supreme Court. The court is now considering whether the posts are simply a venting of frustration as Mr. Elonis claims, or whether the posts constitute a "true threat" that will direct Mr. Elonis directly to jail.

The incident in question began a week after Tara Elonis obtained a protective order against her husband. Upon receiving the order, Mr. Elonis posted to Facebook, "Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket [...] Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?" According the Mr. Elonis, he was trying to emulate the rhyming styles of the popular rapper Eminem. At a later date, an FBI agent visited Mr. Elonis regarding his threatening posts about his wife. Soon after the agent left, Mr. Elonis again returned to Facebook to state "Little agent lady stood so close, took all the strength I had not to turn the [expletive] ghost. Pull my knife, flick my wrist and slit her throat."
Due to these posts, Mr. Elonis was sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison, and Elonis v. United States is now in front of the Supreme Court. Typical state statutes define these "true threats" without any regard to whether the speaker actually intended to cause such terror. For example, Minnesota's "terroristic threats" statute includes "reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror." Some states allow for a showing of "transitory anger" to overcome a "true threat" charge. This type of defense arises where the defendant's actions are short-lived, have no intent to terrorize, and clearly are tied to an inciting event that caused the anger.

The Supreme Court's decision will carry wide First Amendment implications for free speech rights and artistic expression. A decision that comes down harshly on Mr. Elonis may have the effect of chilling speech on the internet. The difference between a serious statement and one that is joking many times depends on the point of view of the reader. Many would rather stop their posting on the internet instead of risk having their words misinterpreted and charges brought. On the other hand, if the Court were to look towards the intent of Mr. Elonis, then "true threat" statutes may lose much of their force due to evidentiary issues. A decision in favor of Mr. Elonis may lead to a more violent internet where criminals such as stalkers have a longer leash in which to persecute their victims. Oral argument on the case was held on December 1, 2014, and a decision will be issued in the near future.

Asteroid Mining--Not As Crazy As It Sounds

|

Kirsten Johanson, MJLST Staff Member

Over the last few years, companies and private individuals have fully embraced novel space activities. Felix Baumgarner completed a space jump with the Red Bull Stratos making him the first human to break the sound barrier without any engine power. SpaceX developed the first reusable rocket, the Grasshopper, and was the first private company to deliver a shipment to the International Space Station. Recently, for the first time in history, the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission successfully landed its space probe, Philae, on a comet. All of these ventures pushed the boundaries of space exploration beyond limits previously imagined and all indications are that such ventures will continue. One such undertaking is the concept of asteroid mining.

Asteroid mining is exactly what it sounds like--humans landing equipment on asteroids (and other celestial bodies) and mining for the minerals that exist on such bodies. This concept might seem far-fetched but, in reality, it is a serious topic of debate primarily because of the usefulness of the minerals that exist in the crust of asteroids. NASA has released an estimate "that the mineral wealth resident in the belt of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter would be equivalent to about 100 billion dollars for every person on Earth today." The reason such minerals are so valuable is because of their potential usefulness in "developing the space structures and in generating the rocket fuel that will be required to explore and colonize our solar system in the twenty-first century."

Today, the physical process of actually mining these minerals is still not cost-effective. As a result, the bigger debate on this issue is currently over the legal implications of mining these minerals and returning them to earth. In space, no single country's laws apply but, in 1967, over one hundred countries signed the United Nations' Outer Space Treaty of 1967. This treaty is the current law governing space and it prevents the appropriation of outer space or any celestial body in space by any nation in its space explorations. While this law unequivocally applies to sovereign nations, the recent dispute is over the extension of this treaty to private companies participating in asteroid mining. If it does not, companies like Deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources, SpaceX, or other private players in the space exploration field could begin developing mining procedures that would give them rights to any mined asteroid minerals. However, if it does extend to private companies, this opportunity will likely die before it gets started.

Many in the public and private sector in the United States are pushing for a narrow application of the law to nations which would leave open a huge industry for private development. In Congress, the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities In Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act was recently introduced in the House of Representatives to officially clarify the law. The Act states that "[a]ny resources obtained in outer space from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained such resources." This would mean that any asteroid mining company would have unlimited access and appropriation rights over any asteroid materials they mine but not over the asteroid itself.

Proponents of such a reading have introduced various statutory interpretation arguments that get them to this conclusion, but it is still unclear which of these will likely be the winning argument. Or even if there will be a winning argument. While asteroid mining does present significant opportunities well into the future, it is still a long-term venture unlikely to launch anytime soon. As a result, if the ASTEROID Act does find enough support in Congress, that is only the first step. The United States will still have to assert an international position amenable to other countries.

Overall, this Act and the publicity it will need to generate to garner sufficient support of this industry is an important first step but it cannot be the only step. Other countries, particularly the signers of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, must develop a workable solution to the ownership question of asteroid materials. However, with the potential technological advancements and economic realizations of such an industry, it is unlikely that countries with active space exploration will be opposed. Hopefully, these countries see the development opportunities as outweighing the costs because, if there is wide acceptance, this might be the real start of space development and colonization.

The Limits of Free Speech

|

Paul Overbee, MJLST Editor

A large portion of society does not put much thought into what they post on the internet. From tweets and status updates to YouTube comments and message board activities, many individuals post on impulse without regard to how their messages may be interpreted by a wider audience. Anthony Elonis is just one of many internet users that are coming to terms with the consequences of their online activity. Oddly enough, by posting on Facebook Mr. Elonis took the first steps that ultimately led him to the Supreme Court. The court is now considering whether the posts are simply a venting of frustration as Mr. Elonis claims, or whether the posts constitute a "true threat" that will direct Mr. Elonis directly to jail.

The incident in question began a week after Tara Elonis obtained a protective order against her husband. Upon receiving the order, Mr. Elonis posted to Facebook, "Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket [...] Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?" According the Mr. Elonis, he was trying to emulate the rhyming styles of the popular rapper Eminem. At a later date, an FBI agent visited Mr. Elonis regarding his threatening posts about his wife. Soon after the agent left, Mr. Elonis again returned to Facebook to state "Little agent lady stood so close, took all the strength I had not to turn the [expletive] ghost. Pull my knife, flick my wrist and slit her throat."

Due to these posts, Mr. Elonis was sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison, and Elonis v. United States is now in front of the Supreme Court. Typical state statutes define these "true threats" without any regard to whether the speaker actually intended to cause such terror. For example, Minnesota's "terroristic threats" statute includes "reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror." Some states allow for a showing of "transitory anger" to overcome a "true threat" charge. This type of defense arises where the defendant's actions are short-lived, have no intent to terrorize, and clearly are tied to an inciting event that caused the anger.

The Supreme Court's decision will carry wide First Amendment implications for free speech rights and artistic expression. A decision that comes down harshly on Mr. Elonis may have the effect of chilling speech on the internet. The difference between a serious statement and one that is joking many times depends on the point of view of the reader. Many would rather stop their posting on the internet instead of risk having their words misinterpreted and charges brought. On the other hand, if the Court were to look towards the intent of Mr. Elonis, then "true threat" statutes may lose much of their force due to evidentiary issues. A decision in favor of Mr. Elonis may lead to a more violent internet where criminals such as stalkers have a longer leash in which to persecute their victims. Oral argument on the case was held on December 1, 2014, and a decision will be issued in the near future.

Dylan Quinn, MJLST Lead Note Comment Editor

The work week is winding down and you are furiously trying to reach an agreement with opposing counsel on some issue or dispute. You email back and forth until it appears you have reached an agreement - at least for the weekend. You will tell your client about the essential terms next week to see if you should "finalize" everything with the other side.

I don't want to ruin your weekend, but you may have already bound the client to an enforceable agreement. How, you ask, can this be possible if I did not sign anything? Well, in light of the UETA and developing case law, that automatic signature block at the bottom of all your emails might be enough.

Minnesota Statutes Section 481.08 provides that an "attorney may bind a client, at any stage of an action or proceeding, by agreement made ... in writing and signed by such attorney." In addition, Minnesota has long joined almost every other state by adopting a variation of the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA). The purpose of the UETA is to provide a legal framework for the use of electronic signatures and records in government of business transactions, making them as legal as paper and manually signed signature. In sum, the UETA will apply to agreements reached under Section 481.08.

Minnesota Statutes Section 325L(h), defines "electronic signature" as "an electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to or logically associated with a record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record." Furthermore, Section 325L.05 (b), makes clear that the UETA in Minnesota only applies to transactions between parties where they both have "agreed to conduct transactions by electronic means," which is determined by the "context and surrounding circumstances, including the parties' conduct." However, any attorney negotiating a settlement or other stipulation via email will open themselves up to the argument that they intended to transact business electronically, so the central question is whether or not an attorney intended the signature block to constitute a legally significant act that authenticates the email, thus binding the client to a settlement or other agreement.

It has long been held that an email chain can constitute a binding agreement. This past summer, the Minnesota Court of Appeals, held that "an electronic signature in an email message does not necessarily evidence intent to electronically sign a document attached to the e-mail." See SN4, LLC v. Anchor Bank, fsb, 848 N.W.2d 559, 567 (Minn. Ct. App. 2014). While the decision adds to a growing body of jurisprudence in this area, the question of automated signature blocks was tabled by the decision and the parties involved were not attorneys. The Minnesota Supreme Court denied review this past September.

Other jurisdictions can offer some guidance. For example, In New York, where another law outside the UETA effectively serves the same purpose, it has long been held that automated imprints or signatures were insufficient to authentic every document. See Parma Tile Mosaic & Marble Co. v. Estate of Fred, 663 N.E.2d 633, 635 (NY Ct. App. 1996) (finding for Statute of Frauds purposes, automatic imprint of "MRLS Construction" on every faxed document did not amount to "sender's apparent intention to authentic every document subsequently faxed.").

In Texas, there is a split among the Courts on the issue of an attorneys signature block creating an enforceable agreement. Compare Cunningham v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., 352 S.W.3d 519, 529-30 (Tex. App. 2011) (determining settlement agreement had not been reached because the Court declined "to hold that mere sending ... of an email containing a signature block satisfies the signature requirement when no evidence suggests that the information was typed purposefully rather than generated automatically."), with Williamson v. Bank of New York Mellon, 947 F. Supp. 2d 704, 710 (N.D. Tex. 2013) (disagreeing with Cunningham because (1) the attorney must have typed in the signature block information "at some point in the past," (2) a broad view of the electronic signature definition comports with UETA's purpose, and (3) "email communication is a reasonable and legitimate means of reaching a settlement in this day and age.").

On the one hand, it seems like a strong argument to point out the fact that all emails contain the signature block. How can that possibly evidence the requisite intent to authenticate statements or agreements? Do we really want to allow attorneys to use this argument any time they get close enough to reaching an agreement when emailing back and forth? In response, one must ask: in what instance should we allow an attorney to seemingly agree with opposing counsel via email, but get out of it because they did not use "/s/", and just had their automated signature block?

Regardless of the outcome, the potential impact of a decision one way or the other will have far reaching impacts on legal practice, and more specifically litigation, in Minnesota. As the Court recognized in Williamson, "email communication is a reasonable and legitimate means of reaching a settlement in this day and age." If the entire purpose of the UETA was to facilitate electronic transactions, and the Minnesota Supreme Court is in charge of providing professional and ethical guidance for the profession within the state, they should grant review as opposed to tabling the issue.

Until then, all parties transacting business electronically, but especially attorneys, should be conscious of that little signature block they typed in the first day they set up their email account.