How many words is a citation?

The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and many state counterparts impose “word limits” on briefs and similar documents.  Rule 32(a)(7)(B) requires that a principal brief contain no more than 13,000 words, a reply brief, no more than 6,500.  Briefs that comply can exceed the respective page limits of 30 and 15.  Rule 28.1(e)(2)’s length limits for briefs filed in cross-appeals take the same form.  An alternative measure, available only to briefs prepared with a monospaced typeface, is lines of text.  While a brief’s table of citations is excluded from those word-count caps, all of the citations in its body, including those contained in footnotes, are tallied.  See Rule 32(a)(7)(B)(f).  The question explored here is: How are they counted?

The following citations are among those that appear in a brief randomly selected from U.S. Court of Appeals filings of this past June:

  • Clear Sky Car Wash LLC v. City of Chesapeake, Va., 743 F.3d 438 (4th Cir. 2014)
  • Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016)
  • 10 U.S.C. § 1552(a)(5)
  • 32 C.F.R. § 70.8
  • Department of Defense Directive 1332.28

Each refers to a single source. But how many words does each of those references add to the brief’s total?  Is that sum affected by the citation format employed?  Understand that this is no mere theoretical question.  The attorney filing a brief must certify that it complies with the relevant word limit.  More precisely, that certificate must “state the number of words” contained in the brief.  Rule 32(g)(1).  So to repeat the question:  How many words do these five citations represent? 

Of course, few, if any, attorneys or their support staff grapple with that question in its raw form.  That is because the federal rule and its state equivalents allow the person preparing the certificate to “rely on the word … count of the word-processing system used to prepare the document.”  Rule 32(g)(1).  Set forth below are the figures Microsoft Word (2016)* provides for each. 

  • Clear Sky Car Wash LLC v. City of Chesapeake, Va., 743 F.3d 438 (4th Cir. 2014) (16 words)
  • Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016) (9 words)
  • 10 U.S.C. § 1552(a)(5) (4 words)
  • 32 C.F.R. § 70.8 (4 words)
  • Department of Defense Directive 1332.28 (5 words)

Some straightforward observations follow from those figures.  First, long case names expend words at a rate that bears no relation to their importance to a brief’s argument.  Second, the omission of a date element in the U.S. Code and Code of Federal Regulations citations—a widespread professional practice but one not sanctioned by The Bluebook prior to the 2020 edition—trims a word from each.  Third, the absence of a parallel citation for Spokeo (“194 L. Ed. 2d 635”) has reduced that citation’s word count by five.  Why five?  Because Microsoft Word woodenly treats every space as a word separator.  Third, the use of short-form citations can dramatically reduce a brief’s word count.  Substituting DoDD for “Department of Defense Directive,” as this brief does after the first occurrence of the full phrase, trims 3 words off what would otherwise be the added word count every time a directive is cited.  Finally, because of the treatment of spaces, citation format alone makes a difference. “S. Ct.” is counted as two words; “4th Cir.” is as well.  MS Word sees “L. Ed. 2d” as three words.  In a brief that makes repeated reference to a decision of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, published in the Thomson West reporter, Federal Supplement, Third Series, the incremental word count created by the spaces in “F. Supp. 3d” and “M.D. Fla.” can begin to add up.  If that important case has a long case name, as well, e.g., Wendel v. Fla. Dep’t of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles, 80 F. Supp. 3d 1297, 1302 (M.D. Fla. 2015) (MS Word count 19), each recurrence (not employing a short form) expends the equivalent of a sentence worth of words from a brief’s allotted quota.

Along come the editors of the freshly released twenty-first edition of The Bluebook.  In light of this troubling counting algorithm embedded in MS Word, they grant leave to practitioners, although not law review authors or editors, to squeeze all spaces out of reporter names.  Per The Bluebook (21st ed.) “F. Supp. 3d” can be written “F.Supp.3d” and “S. Ct.” as “S.Ct.”  Alas, “M.D. Fla.” falls outside its meagre gesture of relief, and short-form citations remain the only remedy for wordy case names.

California attorneys have a clear advantage in this area.  The California Rules of Court give them the option of citing in accordance with the California Style ManualCal. Rules of Ct. 1.200.  That manual’s abbreviation format for both reporters and courts omits the spaces that The Bluebook requires.  It compresses “Cal. App. 4thto “Cal.App.4th” and does the same with abbreviations of deciding courts.  The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California is “N.D.Cal.”  See California Style Manual (2000).  (California appellate briefs are also allowed 14,000 words.  Cal. Rules of Ct. 8.204.)

Since the word count limits currently codified in appellate rules reflect a collective judgment on ample length for a citation-filled brief, any widespread shift in how attorneys format citations would be likely, in the end, to produce an adjustment of the cap.  At present, only a very small percentage of briefs filed in federal court squeeze the spaces out of reporter names.  The online legal research systems that allow one to retrieve a formatted citation along with text copied from an opinion insert the spaces called for by standard abbreviation practice, and format-checking software will look for them. It seems likely that this option offered by the editors of The Bluebook will be grasped only in an emergency.  It offers a way for the author of a brief confronting an imminent filing deadline with a word count slightly over the limit to trim without sacrificing content.  With more time, the text could be tightened.  If the length is a consequence of the complexity of the case, an order raising the cap is possible.  See Rule 32(a)(7)(B)(e).  It’s little surprise that this measure (the contemporary equivalent of reducing a paper’s margins) occurred to a bunch of student journal editors.


*Results on these and other word count matters vary with the word processing software employed.  See Don Cruse, Worried about word counts? Your choice of word processor matters a great deal (2013).  They also, apparently, depend on the software’s version.  See DeSilva v. DiLeonardi, 185 F.3d 815 (7th Cir. 1999).

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