A recent New York Times piece on the prevalence of non-functioning links in Supreme Court citations (a topic for another day) carried the headline: “In Supreme Court Opinions, Web Links to Nowhere.” The phrase brought to mind the fierce attack mounted by the late West Publishing Company during the mid-nineties against proposals to replace that publisher’s dominant system of proprietary, print-based citation of U.S. case law with vendor- and medium-neutral citations. At the time West’s representatives repeatedly characterized citation identifiers applied by the issuing court as “citations to nowhere” or “nowhere citations.” They asserted that the approach, then and still, advocated by the American Association of Law Libraries and American Bar Association “provides absolutely no clue that helps the researcher to identify the publication, CD-ROM, or online service where she can actually find the opinion.”
Artfully, the argument conflated two quite distinct goals for a citation system – one central, the other secondary and often sacrificed to competing values. As explained in § 1-200 of Basic Legal Citation: a functional legal citation must, within limited space, “provide the reader with sufficient information to find the document or document part in the sources the reader has available (which may or may not be the same sources as those used by the writer).” A second and separate principle would call for disclosure of the writer’s actual source. In a much cited 1982 article on citation theory and practice, Paul Axel-Lute placed the latter citation principle dead last in his list of thirteen, a set which he noted carried inevitable conflicts.
As the Axel-Lute article observed this “writer disclose your source” principle is, in numerous settings, trumped by the principle of “brevity” and also overridden by rules calling for citation to “official” sources (whether or not in fact used by the writer). Noting that longstanding practice, codified in The Bluebook, which had just then appeared in its thirteenth edition, did not require specification of source in citations of court rules, Axel-Lute surmised this was because they “are found in a multiplicity of sources.” He observed that the same held for citations to the Constitution.
In the early 1980s case law was not available from a “multiplicity of sources” and a case citation in the format “___ F.2d ___, ___” at once directed readers to the cited passage and indicated the writer’s use of a specific source. Four decades later “multiplicity of sources” characterizes access to nearly all types of primary legal materials in the U.S., and such a citation cannot reasonably be understood as representing that the writer has read the decision in the pages of a particular printed volume or even in the digital replica sold online by the same publisher. Today, with few exceptions, cases and statutes are available from “a multiplicity of sources,” some free to all, others free to all members of a state bar, and still others wrapped in costly layers of added value. So long as a citation to a judicial opinion or statutory section enables a reader to retrieve the document from her preferred source there is no more need for the writer to declare his source than with a constitution provision or court rule.
In this environment of many competing sources, proprietary citations are more likely than those appended by the issuing court, legislative body, or agency to give rise to problems of access. Consider the recent decision of the Indiana Supreme Court interpreting that state’s statute on grandparent visitation rights, J.C. v. J.B., 991 N.E.2d 110 (Ind. 2013). As already noted, although the foregoing citation is derived from a specific print publication, no reader of this blog should take my use of it as representing that I relied on that source. In fact I first came upon the decision on Lexis. Prevailing citation norms do not, however, call on me to declare that. Nor does the formula “991 N.E.2d 110”, which conforms to the pattern specified by the major citation manuals and Indiana’s own rules of appellate procedure, drive the reader to a particular source. Ultimately, it will enable retrieval of the decision from all major legal research services including Casemaker, a system that is free to all Indiana Bar Association members. Unfortunately, however, since it is not the product of a system of court-applied citations, “991 N.E.2d 110” did not travel along with the opinion when it was added to all those databases. The decision was handed down on July 18, 2013. North Eastern Reporter volume and page numbers were not attached to it on Westlaw until roughly a month later. At that point all other databases confronted the task of matching the Thomson Reuters cite and the corresponding internal pagination with their copy of the Indiana decision. Until that is done “991 N.E.2d 110” cannot be used on them to retrieve the case nor can that citation be drawn from them by the writer of a brief or subsequent opinion. Casemaker did not make that match until mid-October. And as of this writing “991 N.E.2d 110” still draws a blank on Google Scholar (even though it holds the case). Google Scholar has integrated volume and page numbers with opinions Thomson Reuters has allotted to “898 N.E.2d” but as yet none from “890 N.E.2d” or “891 N.E.2d.”
Consider also the statutory provision at issue in J.C. v. J.B. It is cited by the court as “Ind. Code § 31-17-5-1.” On Lexis that section is presented as “Burns Ind. Code Ann. § 31-17-5-1.” Westlaw identifies the same provision as part of “West’s Annotated Indiana Code.” Both titles match those of copyrighted print compilations marketed by the respective companies. Were one to take the “writer disclose your source” principle seriously even a citation to “Burns Ind. Code Ann.” would have to indicate whether it referred to the publisher’s print or electronic version. Somewhat ambiguously The Bluebook instructs a writer to cite to “Indiana Code … if therein” rather than to either commercial version, but does it mean a specific “Indiana Code”? Although the Indiana Legislative Services Agency maintains an up-to-date compilation of the state’s statutes with that title at: http://www.in.gov/legislative/ic/2010/, it is good bet that the Indiana lawyer who complies with the state’s rules of appellate procedure and cites to Ind. Code § 31-17-5-1 has secured its text from Lexis, Westlaw, or Casemaker rather than from that public site.
During the print era it was, in many settings, important for a statutory citation to indicate the specific source relied on by the writer, but today “Ind. Code” and the equivalent in other states are generic references. They are identifiers that enable retrieval of the relied upon text from a multiplicity of sources rather than a signal that the writer has consulted a particular one. The major citation manuals and some state rules are not clear on this point, largely because they remain stuck in patterns shaped by print.
There are still some situations where the “writer disclose your source” principle merges with the core task of facilitating the reader’s retrieval of the cited text, where indicating source avoids the risk of a “nowhere citation” or misdirection. In the present environment, however, generic citations of cases and statutes are the norm. Traditional formats that imply reliance upon a particular source too often consume unnecessary space, impose costs and delay, and run some risk of confusion.