Twenty years ago, the Board of Governors of the Wisconsin Bar, endorsed a report prepared by its Technology Resource Committee. The report recommended that the Wisconsin Supreme Court adopt a new system of “vendor neutral” and “medium neutral” citation for state case law. Its proposal, picked up and refined by the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) and the American Bar Association (ABA), became the template for a reform movement that continues to spread, albeit too slowly, across the U.S. (For the story in greater detail, see Neutral Citation, Court Web Sites, and Access to Authoritative Case Law.) Today sixteen states employ some form of vendor and medium neutral citation. Most are based on the scheme set out in the 1994 Wisconsin report.
To appreciate how farsighted those who drafted that document were one must reflect back on how courts and lawyers conducted their business in 1994 and how little of what all now take for granted had by then taken shape. Twenty years ago published law reports were used in case law research by most lawyers. Those who employed Westlaw or LEXIS to identify relevant cases had little choice but to turn to print to review those decisions in full because of limitations in those services’ data and interface.
A contemporary survey of Wisconsin lawyers found that 45% of them relied exclusively on print resources. Judges of the period were at least as print-dependent. No court had yet begun releasing decisions to the Internet. Some, including the Wisconsin appellate courts, were still transmitting their opinions to publishers and online systems in hard copy. The World Wide Web was in its infancy, as was Cornell’s Legal Information Institute site.
A copy of the Wisconsin report, acquired on diskette as a WordPerfect 5.1 file, hand-coded in HTML 1.0, and divided into segments, to allow for the low bandwidth available to those accessing the Internet via a dial-up connection, was mounted on the Cornell server. There it can still be found. That historic document has stood up well. It deserves a read and recognition. The enormous changes in the methods and media of information dissemination and legal research that have taken place during the intervening decades have only added force to its recommendations.