Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Invention of the Citator

Today's researchers are used to the convenience of online citators, notably KeyCite (on Westlaw) and Shepard's (on LexisNexis). There's no disputing the advantages of online citators over their print predecessors: they are more current and easier to fine-tune, they cover more, and they link effortlessly to citing sources.

But think a moment about the origins of citators. Who thought them up?
The first compiler of a legal citation index was Simon Greenleaf. In 1807 Greenleaf was the first and only lawyer in the small town of Gray, Maine; he was, in fact, one of about fifty attorneys in the entire Maine territory. Like many of his colleagues, Greenleaf was not a college graduate. He began at the age of eighteen to "read" for the law in an attorney's office and, after five years, he was admitted to the bar. He soon opened his own office in Gray, where he practiced for twelve years. The typical legal practice of this period involved frequent appearances in court, and Greenleaf undoubtedly argued his share of cases before the bench. In one of those arguments, he relied upon and cited an English decision which seemed applicable and decisive of the issue. Unfortunately, the case had been overruled, and the court declared it of no authority whatever. "[Greenleaf's] first law book sprang, as we have his own authority for saying, from this circumstance .... He determined at once to ascertain, as far as he could, which of the apparently authoritative cases in the Reports had lost their force, and to give the information to the profession.'"
Patti Ogden, Mastering the Lawless Science of Our Law: A Story of Legal Citation Indexes, 85 Law Libr. J. 1, 2 (1993) (footnotes omitted and emphasis added), HeinOnline (UW restricted). 

Although I enjoyed this article when I read it years ago, what brought it to mind (and led to my sharing it with you) was a Twitter post:

Sarah Glassmeyer writes: Got wrapped up in some law librarian dorkiness
and just wasted some time looking at this early citator http://bit.ly/llrgCy.
I'm generally game for "some law librarian dorkiness," so I followed the link. It led to a Google Books digital version of A Collection of Overruled, Denied, and Doubted Decisions and Dicta, Both American and English, by Simon Greenleaf, LL.D., Professor of Law at Harvard University [he did not remain a solo practitioner in his small town], Fourth Edition Revised and Enlarged, by John Townshend, Counselor at Law, New York, published in 1856.

Like Sarah, who is a law librarian at Valparaiso, I couldn't resist browsing. Here are a few excerpts:

Several entries from Greenleaf's citator

It's an impressive work. I like the quotations from the citing cases: "Spencer, J., called this 'a very unintelligible and illy reported case'" is much more colorful than simply "questioned" or "distinguished."

Think what it would be like to practice without any way of tracking what cases have been overruled or disapproved!

Although the law library has Greenleaf's citator in print (3d ed., revised and enlarged, 1840; 4th ed., revised and enlarged 1867), I wouldn't have bothered to look at it if it weren't so easy to click from Sarah's tweet to the digitized version. Twitter can alert you to something from the distant past as well as to someone's lunch choices in the immediate present.

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