Saturday, June 7, 2014

Universal Citation

One of the first things law school students learn is how to properly cite legal authority. Bluebooking is difficult to learn and time consuming to practice. Surprisingly, a few law students develop a love for the Bluebook after years of torture in some form of Bluebook Stockholm Syndrome.

The Bluebook, in a complex way, standardizes citations which is a huge value to legal research and scholarship. But it is time to think beyond the Bluebook and start moving citation into a digital age. Universal citation is one small step that needs to be taken to move legal citation beyond its print origins.

Consider a Bluebook formatted court opinion citation. Looking at Bluebook rule 10 would yield a citation such as Palsgraf v. Long Island R. Co., 248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99 (1928). This citation allows a reader to find this specific case in printed volume sets. It also allows a reader to glean some intrinsic information about the case pertaining to time period, jurisdiction, and strength of authority. These Bluebook citations, however, were designed in a time period where published volumes existed without an electronic counterpart.

AALL Citation Formats Committee Example Citation

Online legal information content providers such as Westlaw or Lexis used the rigid nature of Bluebook citations to create instant digital access to cited documents. Since they have large internal databases, they can assign a unique identifier to legal documents based on the intrinsic information contained in the citations. In short, the addition of unique identification allows for accurate hot linking to digital documents--a huge time saver when doing research.

But what about the materials becoming freely available online? For example, many courts publish their decisions directly to the court’s website. Legal citation should also support these free legal materials by using unique and publisher neutral identifiers.

The American Association of Law Libraries has proposed a citation format designed to be both unique and publisher neutral and it is being adopted by a number of jurisdictions(and covered by Bluebook rule 10.3.3). The format is year, standardized abbreviation, accession number (for example, 2011 PA Super 33).  This format is also easy to read while communicating information about the decision’s year, jurisdiction, and strength of authority. It would allow for the development of online tools to search and link to legal materials freely available online and could lower the cost of legal information.

But why stop there? Universal citation is just one change that should be mandated in a digital age. In an online and networked world, does it still make sense to follow the many complex and time consuming Bluebook rules that were designed for an age of print?

For further reading, see these unique citations:

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