What does the start of a new year mean in legal citation?

A year change prompts reflection on the roles dates play in legal citation. I use the plural “roles” because of the diversity of functions dates serve in citations.  With some sources they are largely superfluous; with others, they are critical to retrieval.


As noted in a prior post, the full date of release is a crucial part of the identifying data for any unpublished opinion. Among the decisions released this week by the Second Circuit is one that should now and into the future be cited as: Wager v. Littell, No. 13-1683-cv (2d Cir. Jan. 6, 2014).

In all U.S. jurisdictions that have adopted systems of medium neutral case citation, the year of a decision is an integral part of its cite or retrieval tag. The decision, People v. Radojcic, 2013 IL 114197, would have been designated 2014 IL 114197, had it been released by the Illinois Supreme Court during the early part of 2014 rather than on Nov. 21, 2013. On Dec. 23, 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court released its opinion in People v. Cunningham, 2013 CO 71. Had it instead been the court’s first decision of this month it would have been 2014 CO 1. (Illinois and Colorado employ different systems of designating decisions rendered within the year.)

In a majority of U.S. jurisdictions, however, the year of a precedential decision is not critical for identification or retrieval. Nonetheless, it is routinely included as one element of a complete case citation. Thus, when a 2013 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court cites an earlier decision, that decision is identified as Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U. S. 434, 443 (1977). Why include the year? “431 U.S. 434” provides all the information one needs to retrieve that earlier decision from any database or library shelf? The reason presumably is that knowing the year of a decision may help a reader to decide whether to look at it. It provides useful but not critical information.

Finally, it may be worth noting that the year incorporated within a decision citation is not the year that the case was compiled into a print volume or that the volume was finally published but rather the year the decision was issued.


Citations to session laws generally include the year of enactment. Indeed, the year is often part of an act’s name. If the legislation has not been named, its full date will be employed for that purpose, as, for example, “Act of Dec. 9, 2013”.

What to do when citing to a section of a jurisdiction’s codified laws is bit of a puzzle. Should a year be furnished and, if so, what year? Now that the year is 2014 has section 110 of title 17 of the United States Code become 17 U.S.C. § 110 (2014)? Is that a function of the cutoff date of the writer’s source?

The most recent print version of 17 U.S.C. § 110 published by the Government Printing Office appears in a set denominated the 2012 edition. However, since that edition extends through the term of the 112th Congress it, in fact, includes laws passed and signed into law in the early days of 2013. The volume in which 17 U.S.C. § 110 appears was printed in 2013. Other volumes of the 2012 edition have yet to appear.  Westlaw doesn’t provide an “as of” date for this or other sections of the U.S. Code but it does report that the most recent amendment of this particular section took effect on April 27, 2005. Lexis represents that its version of the U.S. Code is “Current through PL 113-57, approved 12/9/13.” The LII notes of its version “Current through Pub. L. 113-52” without providing a date. However one interprets of The Bluebook’s prescription on this point, it definitely calls for some date to be appended to 17 U.S.C. § 110, in parentheses.

The more sensible approach, at least in legal writing produced by or for courts, is that followed by the U.S. Supreme Court. So long as an opinion of the Court is referring to sections of the code currently in effect, its citations include no date element. The lower federal courts follow the same practice as do most lawyers submitting briefs to federal courts. One also finds dateless statutory citations in the appellate decisions and briefs from such prominent states as California, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Only when the provision being cited has, by the time of writing, been repealed or amended or has only recently been enacted does it become important to specify the date of a compilation that contains the language being cited. The precise form this takes will necessarily be governed by the form in which that compilation presents its cutoff date, and it ought to report the compilation date not the year that compilation appeared in print or online.


The considerations bearing on citations to regulations appear very much the same. However, professional practice is less consistent. Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and judges of lower federal courts will often include the year of compilation for a Code of Federal Regulations provision in an opinion’s first citation to it, leaving the year off all subsequent references. Arguably, for as long as annual print compilations constituted the principal source for codified regulations that approach furnished useful information. Today, with constantly updated compilations maintained not only by commercial online services but the Government Printing Office, it makes better sense for both writer and reader to understand that a citation in a brief or opinion to 37 C.F.R. § 205.22 refers to the provision in effect at the time of writing. With a section that has not changed since 2008, the addition of 2013 or, as of last week, 2014 in parentheses serves little purpose. For that reason many judges and lawyers would cite to 37 C.F.R. § 205.22 (or a state equivalent) without indicating a year, again, unless the litigation concerned an earlier version or the regulation in question has undergone recent change.


Dates are far less precise and therefore less useful in citations to journal articles. Because publication delays are common with student-edited journals, numerous articles that failed to appear in 2013 will nonetheless carry that date.  Many destined to appear in 2014 last received attention from their author or an editor in 2013. Judicial opinions, legislative enactments, and regulations all carry specific release or effective dates.  Individual journal articles do not. Notwithstanding the imprecision and limited utility, attachment of the nominal year of publication to article citations is accepted practice.

The same holds for treatise  citations with greater reason and despite a further difficulty. Most major treatises have been acquired by an online research service and are bundled with the service’s primary law materials.  In both print and online form they are updated at least annually. In print, the updates may be integrated, the case with treatises published in a looseleaf format, or they may be issued in a separate supplement.  Online, they are integrated without any indication of what was changed or when. Under these circumstances, how should one date a section of A. Wright, A. Miller & M. K. Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure or M. Nimmer & D. Nimmer, Nimmer on Copyright in a brief or opinion prepared during 2014? Should that depend on whether one accessed the material in print or online? Assuming that one is citing to the current work rather than a prior edition or version, the best practice is to cite to the year of the most recent update or revision of the source relied on. Following that practice one would in January 2014 still use the year 2013 for both those works since they were last updated during that year, a fact noted in their print and electronic versions.

The updating phenomenon bestows greater importance on the date associated with a treatise citation. Unlike journal articles these are not static works. A reference to a particular section as it existed some years ago, 2004 say, or 1994, may well, if followed into the current version of the treatise, take the reader to significantly different text . The year accompanying the citation provides a reminder of that reality even though it may be difficult verging on impossible for those working in a contemporary research environment to determine exactly how the cited section read in 1994 or 2014. Neither Lexis (Nimmer & Nimmer) nor Westlaw (Wright & Miller) archive past versions of their treatises online as they do past statutory codifications.

Cite thoughtfully in 2014!



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