Archive for the ‘Federal’ Category

Citing the Code of Federal Regulations

Monday, December 11th, 2017

I. C.F.R. Versus e-CFR and its Progeny?

A. The Historic Print-Determined Timeline

Federal regulations pose the same fundamental citation question as do provisions in the United States Code. On January 18, 2017, important new and amended regulations governing the determination of disability benefit claims under the Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income programs were published in the Federal Register.


January 18, 2017

The changes took effect on March 27. The Federal Register for that very date contained a series of “technical amendments” cleaning up minor drafting errors in the January version of the text. Those corrections arrived just in time to beat the April 1st cutoff date for the volume of the 2017 print edition of the Code of Federal Regulations that contains Part 404 of Title 20. That is where the regulations governing these programs are organized. (The Code’s annual editions are published in four waves: “[T]itles 1-16 are revised as of January 1; titles 17-27 are revised as of April 1; titles 28-41 are revised as of July 1; and titles 42-50 are revised as of October 1.”)

In due course the volume containing all Social Security Administration regulations, as of April 1, 2017, was published by the Office of the Federal Register of the National Archives and Records Administration. In that physical form the new regulations, fully compiled and in context, made their way to Federal Depository Libraries, arriving in mid-September.


Date of Arrival: September 13, 2017

Following distribution of the printed volume, a digital replica in PDF was placed online as part of the Government Publishing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys).

The citation issue posed by that schedule is this: During the eight months that separated initial publication of these regulations from their appearance in a volume of the “official” Code of Federal Regulations (print and electronic) would it have been appropriate to cite them in accordance with the code location designations they carried from the moment of release? Take the revised 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521, for example. The pre-2017 version of that section dated from 1985. How should a legal memorandum written and filed in July 2017 have cited the text of the section by then in effect?

Citation norms, formed during the era in which the printed volumes of the Code of Federal Regulations and its companion, the Federal Register, were the only trustworthy means of accessing federal regulatory texts, would require citing such a recently revised provision to the Federal Register issue dated January 18, 2017, until the C.F.R. volume holding it could be inspected.

B. e-CFR and Derivative Compilations

Today the same public offices that publish the official Code of Federal Regulations also prepare and disseminate online a continuously updated version of the Code they call the “Electronic Code of Federal Regulations” or e-CFR. It lags the most recently published final regulations by a few days, at most.

On December 8, for example, all sections of the e-CFR were current as of December 6. As is true with the Office of Law Revision Counsel’s online version of the United States Code, the e-CFR can be downloaded in bulk (in XML). That makes it possible for all major online legal information services to offer comparably up-to-date versions of the C.F.R. In short, in the current research environment, the lawyer, judge, or legal scholar who would read, quote, and cite to provisions of the Code of Federal Regulations as they stand at the moment of writing has no excuse not to draw upon the e-CFR or one of its reliable derivatives. (The latter include up-to-date versions of the C.F.R. maintained by Bloomberg Law, Lexis, Westlaw, and Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII).)

II. Chronological Version as Distinguished from Source

A. Disambiguating Recently Altered Provisions

Unless the citation to a compilation like the Code of Federal Regulations or the United States Code indicates otherwise, it will be understood as pointing  to the cited portion as it stood at the time of writing. Recent regulatory (or statutory) changes to a provision are likely to require a parenthetical note to remove uncertainty about the reference. With a citation to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521, for example, the reader will want to know whether the writer is invoking the section’s language before or after the 2017 revision. The writer may well also want to signal to the reader that she is aware of the change. On this score an initial citation reading “20 C.F.R. § 404.1521 (as amended in 2017)” or even “20 C.F.R. § 404.1521 (as amended, 82 Fed. Reg 5844, 5868 (Jan. 18, 2017))” is more useful than one that simply furnishes the year of the most recent official publication or the “as of” date of an unofficial version. On the other hand, a citation to 20 C.F.R. § 404.130, which was last amended in 1990, need carry no such baggage.

The existence of the chronological slices represented by the annual official versions does provide a ready means for citing to provisions as they once read. So long as the context makes it clear that the writer means to refer to the language of the section as it stood before the recent change, a citation reading “20 C.F.R. § 404.1521 (2016)” should suffice. But standing alone, one reading “20 C.F.R. § 404.1521 (prior to the Jan. 18, 2017 amendment)” provides a reader with more information. The GPO’s online archive of past C.F.R. editions, which reaches back to 1996, allows retrieval of no-longer-current regulatory texts on the basis of such references.

B. The Citation Manuals’ Requirement of a Date Element in All Cases

Rule 14.2(a) of The Bluebook calls for a C.F.R. citation to include the year of the cited section’s “most recent edition.” No exceptions. The mandate applies to a provision like 20 C.F.R. § 404.130 which has not been amended for over a quarter century. For a citation in a memorandum completed in July 2017, this rule would require  “20 C.F.R. § 404.130 (2016)”. A few months later, that, again per The Bluebook, would become “20 C.F.R. § 404.130 (2017)”. The Indigo Book, being limited in purpose to prying the citation system codified in The Bluebook out of its proprietary wrapper, takes precisely the same position. The ALWD Guide to Legal Citation (6th ed.) goes a step further and addresses the likelihood that the writer has relied on an online compilation more up-to-date than the once-a-year official edition. Acknowledging the e-CFR, it provides in Rule 18.1(c), that if one is relying on its version of the C.F.R. the citation should “indicate the exact date (Month Day, Year) through which the provision is current, and append its URL after the publication parenthetical.” If the writer has, instead, referred to a commercial service’s compilation, ALWD calls for the citation to take the form: “27 C.F.R. § 72.21 (Westlaw through Sept. 29, 2016)”. (The section in its example was last amended in 1995.) In the ordinary case, both are unnecessary.

C. How Federal Judges (and Lawyers Appearing before them) Cite the C.F.R.

With the exception of opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court do which include the year of the current volume in initial citations to the Code of Federal Regulations, the decisions of most federal judges cite its provisions generically. That is, so long as they are referring is to the language of a C.F.R. section currently in effect, they cite it without any indication of date or online source. See, for example, the citations in: Gorman v. Berryhill, No. 3:16-CV-05113 (W.D. Mo., Nov. 30, 2017); Trevizo v. Berryhill, 862 F. 3d 987 (9th Cir. 2017); and Cazun v. Attorney Gen., 856 F.3d 249 (3d Cir. 2017). Briefs filed by the U.S. Justice Department take the same approach.

D. The Publication Lag and Hoped-For Useful Life of Journal Articles May Legitimately Call for The Bluebook‘s or ALWD Guide‘s Approach

Generally, months pass between an author’s completion of a journal article and its eventual publication. Moreover, since publication delays are common, the date carried by the journal issue in which the article appears may or may not correspond to the actual date of its distribution. Finally, against the odds, the author may imagine the piece being read with care for years into the future. Arguably, these factors argue for attachment of an explicit statement of the “current as of date” to all cited statutory and regulatory code sections. At minimum their inclusion reminds an unknown, and perhaps distant, reader to check on whether subsequent amendments may have altered the force of the writer’s analysis.

In contrast, legal briefs and judicial opinions carry explicit dates of filing. So long as there is no indication to the contrary, those reasonably anchor an assumption that all citations to codified statutes and regulations they contain refer to the provisions in effect on that date.

How Should One Think about (and Cite) the U.S. Code?

Monday, December 4th, 2017

I. A Few Recent Changes to the United States Code (Virtual or Generic)

A. The Addition of a New Title

On September 1, 2017 the Office of the Law Revision Counsel, U.S. House of Representatives (OLRC), released a Title 34 of the U.S. Code. It contains no new law. All of Title 34’s provisions had been filed elsewhere in the Code, a fair number of them in the form of notes. The editors of the official code simply gathered the growing number of statutes dealing with “crime control and law enforcement” and organized them into this new location. The results are to be found at the Law Revision Counsel’s online edition.

http://uscode.house.gov/browse.xhtml

The new title is also available in the constantly updated online editions of the U.S. Code offered by LexisNexis, Westlaw, and Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII). In dramatic form this poses the question: How should one think about and cite to a provision of the U.S. Code or any of its state counterparts? Is it appropriate to use the new code architecture and cite a 2001 law authorizing the Justice Department to develop and support computer forensic laboratories as “34 U.S.C. § 30102”? (It was previously stashed in a note to 28 U.S.C. § 509.) If not now, when will it be?

B. The Addition of New or Amended Provisions

The same question is posed less starkly each time a new statute of general and permanent applicability becomes law. On August 23, 2017 the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, Pub. L. No. 115-55, became law. It amended numerous sections of Title 38 of the Code, one of the 37 titles that Congress has enacted into positive law. Two of the amended provisions are subsections (e) and (f) of 38 U.S.C. § 5103A. Although enacted those changes do not take effect immediately. (That is to happen only “on or after the later of 540 days after Aug. 23, 2017, or 30 days after the date on which the Secretary submits to Congress a certification of certain capabilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs ….”)

Five days earlier Pub. L. No. 115-50 amended Section 3 of the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act of 2000, which had been codified by the Law Revision Counsel in Title 42, one of the non-positive law titles, as 42 U.C.C. § 14135a. With the establishment of Title 34, however, that section including the amendment moved to 34 U.S.C. § 40702.

These changes were swiftly incorporated by the Office of Law Revision Counsel into its online version of the Code. (See its pages for 38 U.S.C. § 5103A and 34 U.S.C. § 40702.)  Following standard practice, 38 U.S.C. § 5103A contains notice of the delayed effective date of the 2017 amendments in an appended note.  From the OLRC site the titles, as revised, were picked up and incorporated immediately into the federal statutory compilations maintained by the major online legal information providers. (See, e.g., the LII’s versions of  38 U.S.C. § 5103A and 34 U.S.C. § 40702.) The OLRC offers bulk downloads in a range of formats (XML, XHTML, PCC, and PDF) to facilitate this rapid republication.

II. Their Delayed Appearance in the United States Code (Physical)

The compilation maintained by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel (OLRC) and available online to both the general public and law publishers is the ultimate source for a set of books put out by the Government Publishing Office (GPO). Every six years the OLRC publishes and the GPO prints a fresh edition.

United States Code (2012 edition)

The next edition to appear will carry a 2018 date, but it will not be produced and delivered until well into 2019 and 2020. In between editions there are annual supplemental volumes. They cumulate all changes made up to their cutoff date. The changes noted above will be contained in Supplement V to the 2012 edition of the code likely to be available in late 2018. Volumes and the annual supplements are produced sequentially so that titles with lower numbers and supplements to them appear in print sooner than, say, Titles 34, 38, or 42. As the print volumes are produced an electronic replica in PDF is placed, with authentication at the GPO website, in its FDsys (Federal Digital System) collection. Unlike their print counterparts, these files do not separate statutory text and notes into core volume and cumulative supplement. When the 2017 version of Title 38 appears at the FDsys site in late 2018 it will contain the full title as amended through the beginning of the year.


Authentication of Supplement IV Containing Title 38

III. Ought One to Cite to the Virtual or Generic United States Code?

A. What Do the Leading Manuals Say?

Citation manuals also appear in periodic editions.  This fall brought a new, sixth edition of the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation. (More on this Bluebook competitor in a later post). Tracking the fifth edition it states in Rule 14.1:

Federal statutes are cited either to the official print version of the United States Code (preferred, although it is rarely up to date …) or to the authenticated online version of the code in the Government Publishing Office’s Federal Digital System (“FDsys”)…. Cite an authenticated federal statute in FDsys the same way you cite it in print.

Like The Bluebook, which it essentially mimics on this point and most others, the ALWD guide appears to forbid citation to any of the revised portions of the Code noted above in the format “__ U.S.C. § __” until they have been published by the government in print or the authenticated digital replica. In the interim, for new law, citations to print session laws (or presumably their digital counterparts) are preferred. For a revised packaging of prior law, such as the new Title 34, guidance is less clear. Neither manual has adjusted to the availability of a continuously updated version of the code directly from the public body responsible for its publication.

B. What According to Prevailing Professional Usage Does a “U.S.C.” Citation Represent?

Some time ago, in discussing whether The Bluebook‘s copyright extended to the system of citation it codified, I cited 17 U.S.C. § 102(b), which reads:

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

Does the citation of “17 U.S.C. § 102(b)” as the source for that passage represent that I reviewed its text in the GPO print publication or on FDsys? Both the Bluebook and ALWD Guide appear to say so.  (Had I used Westlaw as my source they would have the cite read “17 U.S.C.A. § 102(b)”.) My intention and, I would argue, the widely understood meaning of the form of my citation was only to identify the location of the quoted passage in any of the many reliable, up-to-date versions of the Code.

In addition to their attachment to print the two academic citation manuals reflect the continuing strong influence of Thomson Reuters and Reed Elsevier. Both manuals allow citation to those companies branded versions of the United States Code (U.S.C.A. and U.S.C.S.) as a fallback. The ALWD Guide to Legal Citation explicitly places them ahead of named commercial alternatives (including Bloomberg Law and Fastcase) and ignores the leading noncommercial source (LII). On what grounds? Revealingly neither mentions the OLRC’s online version of the code on which all others are based.

C. The Use of “U.S.C.” as a Generic Reference

Long ago when the only statutory compilations were those published in print, alternatives could be counted on a few fingers, and publication lag was substantial and varied among them, a requirement that a statutory citation reveal which version the writer had relied upon was defensible. No longer. In 2017 “U.S.C.” amounts to a generic designation, almost certainly employed by the reader to find the cited provision not in the GPO book but in some online database, very likely one different from that used by the writer. Federal judges whose opinions reveal their reliance on Westlaw by the prevalence of “WL” citations to “unpublished” cases cite the Code generically.

D. Brand Reinforcement as a Vestigial Counterforce

A subscriber to Bloomberg Law who takes advantage of its “copy with citation” feature receives that citation in generic format, “__ U.S.C. § __”.  However, a Westlaw subscriber using that service’s “Copy with Reference” feature is furnished a “U.S.C.A.” citation, and “advanced copy” on Lexis cites the same section to “USCS”. Because of such “citation assistance” and the durability of citation habits forged in the print era, citations to those two commercial compilations still appear occasionally in briefs and judicial opinions. Rarely are they used selectively, i.e., limited to provisions not yet available in the print United States Code. Typically, a judge or lawyer who cites to U.S.C.A. or USCS today does so throughout a brief or opinion. See, e.g., HSP v. JK, 223 N.J. 196 (2015), Bank of America, NA v. Camire, 2017 ME 20.

IV. Indicating Chronological Version as Distinguished from Source

When Congress has injected new law into a positive law title of the Code or passed new law that the Office of Law Revision Counsel has compiled into one of the non-positive law titles and when the OLRC has gathered existing statutes into a new title, it is critical that a U.S. Code citation not generate confusion. Does it refer to the Code as it stood before or after the change? In most lawyering settings, a citation to the Code carries the implicit representation that the writer is referring to the Code as it stood when the brief was submitted or the opinion written. (Journal articles, the prime concern of The Bluebook and ALWD Guide to Legal Citation, carry no such clear “as of” date and therefore pose a greater risk of version uncertainty.) A citation to 34 U.S.C. § 30102 will frustrate any reader looking for the section in the GPO’s print or online version of the code. On the other hand, when entered in Google or any of the major online databases it will yield results. The exceedingly cautious writer can add an explanatory parenthical such as “(Prior to the 2017 codification of Title 34 this section appeared as a note to 28 U.S.C. § 509.)”

One U.S. District Court’s Lonely Gesture Toward Open Access and Medium-Neutral Citation

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

I. Introduction

As 2017 opens one U.S. District Court – that for the District of New Hampshire – begins its eighteenth year as an isolated (and incomplete) model of how all federal courts might handle opinion distribution.  (Hat tip to Andrew P. Thornton of Little Rock for bringing its record to my attention.)

II. The Simple Steps this One Court Has Taken

In January 2000, the U.S. District Court in New Hampshire started identifying some of its decisions by year, numbering them sequentially.  It designated Silva v. Nat’l Telewire Corp., No.  99-219-JD, decided on January 3, for example, as “Opinion No. 2000 DNH 001“.  Panza v. Grappone Cos., No. 99-221-M, decided on October 20 of the same year, is “Opinion No. 2000 DNH 224“.  Immediately, upon release, the decision texts, carrying these identifiers, were placed in a court-hosted, searchable database.

The following year the court adopted a local “citation format” rule.  That rule directs those citing decisions released after January 1, 2000 and published at the court site to do so “using the four-digit year in which the opinion is issued, the letters ‘DNH,’ [and] the three-digit opinion number located below the docket number on the right side of the case caption ….”  For decisions published in “the Federal Supplement, the Federal Rules Service, or the Federal Rules Decisions” the rule authorizes volume and page number citations to those print reporters as an alternative.

This took place well before the E-Government Act of 2002 called upon federal courts to provide web-access to “all written opinions.”  While this island of non-print-based citation has escaped the notice of The Bluebook, the 2001 local rule remains in effect and the practice continues.  McFadden v. Walmart, 2017 DNH 002, was decided on January 5 of this year.  The district’s judges themselves do still, on occasion, cite using opinion numbers.  See, e.g., Hersey v. Colvin, 2016 DNH 203, 10 (citing  Corson v. Soc. Sec’y Admin., Comm’r, 2013 DNH 144, 24–25).  So do  attorneys.  The New Hampshire Bar Association publishes a monthly “US District Court Decision Listing” that contains summaries of selected decisions of the prior month.  The decisions covered are cited by their “medium neutral” or “public domain” opinion numbers.

Since the court-attached opinion numbers appear within the texts they identify, researchers need no other citation to retrieve a decision from any electronic source.  They do the job on Bloomberg Law, Casetext, Google Scholar, Lexis Advance, Ravel Law, and WestlawNext.  They also work with the GPO’s FDsys case law repository (about which more below).  For the same reason these sources also provide the opinion number required for a conforming District of New Hampshire citation.

III. Critical Respects in Which the Model Falls Short

A. The Use of Pagination as the Means for Pinpoint Citation

Although nearly all legal research services retain the opinion numbers attached by the U.S. District Court for New Hampshire, only Casetext, Fdsys, and the court’s own database preserve the location of the page breaks in the original version of a decision that the court’s rule directs be used for pinpoint citations. Arkansas and Louisiana, two state systems that, similarly, adopted neutral citation but sought to avoid paragraph numbering by specifying the pagination in a court-released pdf file as the basis for pinpoint references, have suffered the same fate in research services that, like Google Scholar, base their texts for many jurisdictions on the versions published in the Thomson Reuters National Reporter System.  Not only are paragraph numbers more precise and more tightly connected to the logical structure of a cited document than pagination, they travel far more reliably with the portions of text they denote into the full range of data services used by those doing legal research.

B. A Failure to Include All Substantive Opinions (Including Magistrates’ Reports and Recommendations)

Not all decisions rendered by District of New Hampshire judges receive court-applied opinion numbers, only selected ones.  In compliance with the E-Government Act of 2002 all written opinions of the court, including reports and recommendations by magistrate judges, are made available without charge through the PACER system, where they can be gathered by the online services.  A non-trivial number of those opinions – ten percent or more – have not been given opinion numbers nor placed in the court’s searchable database.  That is particularly true with categories of cases such as inmate suits and Social Security appeals that are routinely resolved by a magistrate’s report and recommendation, followed by a short judicial order adopting it.  As a result, a significant body of district case law cannot be found in the court’s searchable database nor cited by means of opinion numbers.  Because of this incompleteness, responsible case law research cannot be carried out using the court’s database.  Thoroughness requires use of one of the comprehensive research services.   And that leads to citations by the court of its own prior decisions that employ Westlaw or Lexis proprietary cites rather than, or in parallel with, the court’s public domain, medium neutral scheme.

C. Inherent Limits on a Single-District Citation System within a Federal Court with 93 Other Districts

The situation in the District of New Hampshire is categorically different from that in the numerous states that have adopted similar plans of electronic publication and court-applied citation.  Matters litigated in state court can often be argued and decided solely on the basis of that state’s own case law.  By contrast, rarely if ever can those representing parties to a matter before the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire or the judge handling the case disregard decisions from the First Circuit and other U.S. Courts of Appeals and decisions by other district courts as well.  For the district judge that calls for use of one of the two commercial systems available to the federal judiciary; for attorneys, use of those same systems or some comparably comprehensive alternative.  The court’s less-than-complete database of decisions may, conceivably, be a useful place to start research but never a place to finish it.  Thorough research and consistent citations of relevant decisions lead almost inexorably to the use of one or more of the proprietary systems.  With this district’s judges the dominant system is Westlaw.  Their pinpoint cites to unpublished decisions, including those in citations to cases that have court-applied opinion numbers, overwhelmingly use Westlaw pagination instead of the page numbers contained in the court’s original version.  The citations to Mudge v. Bank of Am., N.A.Gasparik v. Fed. Nat’l Mortg. Ass’n, and Dionne v. Fed. Nat’l Mortg. Ass’n in LaFratta v. Select Portfolio Servicing, Inc., 2017 DNH 007, as released by the court, are examples.  LaFratta and other recent decisions reveal a declining use of the court’s opinion numbers and a growing practice of linking citations to authority of all kinds into Westlaw.

IV. The Sorry Fate of Other Single-Court Citation Schemes within the Federal Judiciary

A. The Sixth Circuit’s Ancient DOS-Based Naming Scheme

Since 1994 decisions of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, both published and unpublished, have carried a “file name” identifier.  Designed to fit within the name space of the MS-DOS operating system of that era those identifiers consist of eight characters, followed by a period, followed by two more.  The file name of one unpublished decision released in January 2016 is “16a0051n.06”.  Miller v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 811 F.3d 825 (6th Cir. 2016) decided the same month is: “16a0020p.06”.  (The “n” and “p” indicate whether the decision is to be published or not.)  While Lexis retains these identifiers, they don’t follow opinions into volumes of F.3d or Westlaw.  As seems gradually to be happening with the District of New Hampshire opinion numbers, the Sixth Circuit file names have become useless data.

B. The Relatively Brief Run of Neutral Citation in the District of South Dakota

Effective January 1, 1996, the Supreme Court of South Dakota began attaching medium neutral citations and paragraph numbers to its opinions.  The practice continues; the court’s rules of appellate procedure still require use of this public domain citation system.  Later in that year, by local rule the U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota laid down the same steps.  Even at the time not all of the district’s judges bought into the change.  With the appointment of a new chief judge in 1999 who was not an enthusiast, the system continued in the opinions of only one of three active district judges and a magistrate judge.  When the district judge in question took senior status in 2008, all trace of the scheme disappeared.

V. Missed Opportunities to Implement Non-Print-Based, Non-Proprietary Citation across the Federal Courts

A. The Judicial Conference Response to the 1996 ABA Resolution

In 1996 the American Bar Association House of Delegates recommended that all U.S. jurisdictions “adopt a system for official citation to case reports that is equally effective for printed case reports and for case reports electronically published.”  The resolution proceeded to spell out the key elements of such a system: 1) attachment of identifiers to all decisions, consisting of the year, the court, and a sequential decision number, 2) insertion of paragraph numbers, and 3) adoption of court rules requiring that citations employ these elements.  In response the Automation Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and the Administrative Office of the Courts simply surveyed federal judges and clerks regarding the ABA citation recommendation.  Without asking the Federal Judicial Center for a study or furnishing rationale or context, it simply asked all these individual actors whether they favored the steps.  Overwhelmingly they expressed satisfaction with the status quo, hostility to paragraph numbering, and puzzlement over the grounds for change.  The recommendation died in committee and has not since been revived.

B. Terms of the E-Government Act’s Mandate

The E-Government Act of 2002, in a section immediately prior to the one addressing the federal courts,  directed the creation of and authorized appropriations for an integrated online information system covering all federal administrative agencies.  That portal was to be designed to allow public access to agency material “integrated according to function or topic rather than separated according to the boundaries of agency jurisdiction.”  In contrast, reflecting the highly decentralized administrative structure of the federal courts, the act’s directive that all federal court opinions be made accessible online was directed at the chief judge or justice of each and every court in the federal system.  A more coordinated approach might have drawn attention to the citation issue.

C. Addition of Rule 32.1 to the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure

Similarly, the reform movement that led to the addition of Rule 32.1 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure in 2006 might well have focused attention on how the “unpublished” decisions of the U.S. Courts of Appeals, which by the terms of the new rule became citable, could or should be cited.  Its sponsor, the Advisory Committee on the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, heard concerns about how those for whom Lexis and Westlaw were beyond reach would access to this large body of case law.  Ignoring the citation challenge the committee pointed to the E-Government Act’s mandate as addressing the problem.

The strategic appearance of the West Federal Appendix in 2001, which furnished the means for proprietary volume and page number citation for these “unpublished” decisions to members of the federal judiciary (all of whom have access to Westlaw) almost certainly encouraged this blindness.

D. Implementation of the Federal CM/ECF System, its PACER overlay, and the Fdsys Decision Archive

Federal court electronic case management systems trace all the way back to applications developed by the Federal Judicial Center in the late 1960s.  Those established the fundamental structural model that persists to this day: central development of a set of electronic tools, with most decisions about whether, when, or how to use them left to the individual courts.  It is probably significant that, having its own administrative and technical support, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken no part in promoting or coordinating technology adoption in the subordinate federal courts.  In 1990 Congress catalyzed the opening of existing court-located case and document management systems for remote electronic access.  At the time that meant dial-up.  The move to electronic filing began in 1995.  At around the same time the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts began work on a national party and case number index to the electronic records of the federal courts that had implemented its CM/ECF system.  For many federal courts this Public Access to Court Electronic Records service (PACER) subsequently became the mechanism for compliance with the E-Government Act’s mandate.  While access to other documents through PACER carries a fee, all documents tagged by the deciding court as “opinions” can be retrieved without charge.  However, PACER provides no full-text index of those opinions.  They can only be tracked down using docket number, party names, court, and case type.

As filed in a court’s CM/ECF system an opinion is stamped with identifiers that consist solely of case docket number, filing date, and the document’s place in the sequence of filings in the matter – “Case 1:15-cv-00200-LM Document 5 Filed 11/17/15” for example.  A uniform federal court citation system could have been appended to this system, either initially or in the “next generation” version now being rolled out.  It was not.

In recent years the Government Printing Office Federal Digital System (FDsys) has begun drawing opinions from participating federal courts and loading them into a text-searchable database.  Following a pilot phase, the Judicial Conference of the United States authorized national implementation of this inter-branch cooperative venture in September 2012.  Over four years later, it remains seriously incomplete in scope; only 49 out of 94 districts courts are included.  Furthermore, among included courts, the chronological depth and currency of the data vary considerably.  And while GPO authenticates each PDF file it receives from a participating court system and associates a useful array of metadata with it, it has not, as it could, attached an identifier that a lawyer or judge would recognize as a citation.  To date, this is simply another more missed opportunity.

At the beginning of 2017, the prospects of a system-wide citation scheme modeled on that launched in New Hampshire at the turn of the century appear dim.

VI. How Should Decisions of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire Be Cited?

As noted above, this one district court still attaches medium-neutral citations to many, although not all, of its decisions.  Whether one obtains such a decision from the court’s database or a commercial source, its opinion number is available and, when included in a citation, it furnishes a highly efficient retrieval identifier.  Decisions that have been given a place in F. Supp. or F.R.D. can be retrieved by volume and page number from nearly all research services.  Adding the opinion number as a parallel adds negligible value.  For “unpublished decisions” whether or not, given an opinion number, Westlaw or Lexis citations may suffice for the court, its judges having access to both.  But limiting a citation to one or the other or even both in parallel may leave the opposing party and others who might rely on Google Scholar or Casetext or Ravel without an efficient retrieval hook.  Pincites pose a further problem.  Lexis includes Westlaw cites for unpublished cases but not Westlaw pagination.  Westlaw ignores both Lexis cites and Lexis pagination.

Useful guidance and models come from the court’s own decisions.  In Bersaw v. Northland Group Inc., 2015 DNH 050, Judge Joseph LaPlante offered this advice: “[I] would recommend that, with respect to unpublished cases that appear solely on electronic databases such as Westlaw or Lexis, counsel provide as much alternative identifying information (e.g., case number, issuing court, and opinion date) as possible.”  The judge, himself, practices what he recommends.  A citation appearing in Locke v. Colvin, furnishes a fully fleshed out example of this approach.  It reads:

Brindley v. Colvin, No. 14-cv-548-PB, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10757, 2016 WL 355477, at *5 (D.N.H. Jan. 29, 2016) (quoting Ortiz, 890 F.2d at 528) (remanding where ALJ neither called vocational expert nor explained why reliance upon the Grid was appropriate, but “merely stated, without explanation or citation to record evidence, that [the claimant’s] non-exertional limitations have little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled light work”) (internal quotation marks and citation to the record omitted).

Four aspects of the example warrant notice:

  • While Brindley v. Colvin has an opinion number (2016 DNH 021) it is not included.
  • Westlaw pagination rather than pagination from the version held in the court’s database provides the pinpoint reference.
  • The addition of docket or case number and full date, as counseled by Judge LaPlante, make it possible to retrieve the Brindley decision from sources that hold it but neither its Westlaw or Lexis citation, including the court’s own database.
  • The parenthetical notes provide a clear path to the cited portion of Brindley for any reader who is inspecting that decision on a system in which having the Westlaw star page number is useless.