Public Domain Legal Citations


I was researching case law on state court websites recently and surveying what’s out there and who’s publishing what, when I encountered something totally surprising: public domain citation formats. I thought I was pretty up-to-date on free law and access to public information, but I had never heard of this. I turned to my colleague Cicely, the Citation Geek, and asked her if she had heard of it. She was surprised, too.

It turns out that starting in 1996, state courts began creating their own citation systems, adding paragraph numbers to their opinions, and requiring citation to these opinions in their rules.  The formats are called by various names: vendor neutral, universal, media neutral, and public domain. The citations are “vendor neutral” because they do not cite to a commercial reporter. They are “media neutral” because they can be used to cite electronic material (electronic access to public information was just ramping up in the late 90’s). They are “universal” and “public domain” because you do not need to rely on commercial publishers to get the official citation.

Instead, courts create the citation at the time of decision (much like they do for slip opinions), and that citation stays with the opinion, even after it is commercially or “officially” published. They also insert paragraph numbers into the newly published opinion for pinpoint citations.

The BlueBook offers guidance for public domain citations (See Rule 10.3.3 – Public Domain Format). According to the Rule, citations should contain:

  1. Case name
  2. Year of decision
  3. State’s 2 letter postal code
  4. Court name abbreviation
  5. Sequential number of the decision
  6. “U” designation for unpublished cases
  7. Pinpoint citations should reference the paragraph number, instead of the page number.

For example, in North Dakota, a citation to the Supreme Court of that state looks like this: Kautzman v. Kautzman, 2003 ND 140, 668 N.W.2d 59

You’ll note the year, the state code, and the sequential case number. You’ll also note a parallel citation to the commercial reporter, which most states still require. Google Scholar provides both citations.

To pinpoint cite within the case, the paragraph number is used: Kautzman v. Kautzman, 2003 ND 140, ¶ 9, 668 N.W.2d 59, 63.

In this cite, the parallel citation contains the Reporter’s page number, but most states do not require it, probably because that would defeat the purpose. North Dakota Supreme Court Rule 11.6, “Medium-Neutral Case Citations” requires only the initial page number of the Reporter decision.

This is a huge boon for free law for several reasons. Most obviously, you can cite directly to the court-issued opinion without paying for a commercial publication. Vendor-neutral citations also reinforce the notion that the government produces this work, and the public owns the final product. The Court’s opinion, as issued, is the official publication–not the minimally edited, paginated version published by a commercial third party. That means that citizens can go on their state’s website, download an opinion, and cite to it immediately. They can also print the opinion, share it, and use it in ways that private publishers, who claim copyright on the opinions, would not allow.

Citing the opinion from the moment it’s born obviates the need for slip opinions, which basically have temporary citation numbers. I think that this will be important as law is increasingly accessible online–the cases will have one unique identifier that users can search for.

If the public owns the official opinions and citations, courts, such as the Oklahoma State Courts Network and third parties can build cool citation and archive tools. Oklahoma has an archive that spans back to 1890, a nice search interface, and a “Citationizer” tool that allows you to see how the cases have been cited. Parallel citations to commercial publishers are provided on the opinions.

New Mexico has also done a good job of publishing and arranging their opinions (and statutes). The state’s Compilation Commission is the official publisher of the law there.  Although they have enlisted a third party (Conway Greene) to host the opinions and search features, the site is publicly available and free of restrictive terms of service (unlike, say California’s Lexis One site).

The elephant in the room here is that most states still require a parallel citation to the commercial reporter. While some provide parallel citations in the opinions (like OK), others do not. I think that a parallel citation table would solve the problem, and one can certainly use sources like Google Scholar to find those.  If you know of particular web sources for parallel citations, please tell us in the Comments.

This is a huge topic, and I plan to blog more about in the coming months. To me, it’s proof that a self-publishing model can work. Or, at the very least, that the public can own the official citation to court opinions.

In the meantime, here are some additional resources on universal citation:

ABA Universal Citation Guide

AALL Citation Formats Committee

Vox PopuLII on Environmentally Friendly Citations [what they do in Canada, eh]

Posted in: Legal Research

10 responses to “Public Domain Legal Citations”

  1. Mary Alice Baish says:

    AALL has been the leader on the move to a vendor and technology neutral citation system. For more information, please go to

    Mary Alice Baish
    AALL Director of Government Relations

  2. Tom Bruce says:

    Peter Martin has discussed the reasons why neutral citation has been successful in some places and not others, here:

  3. M. Sean Fosmire says:

    Courtney, I wrote about this topic some 10-15 years ago, soon after Oklahoma had adopted the protocol. In the late 1990s, West Publishing made a very hard push against the adoption of a PDC system, apparently for fear that it would jeopardize its legal publishing business. (West did not show much faith in its own significant value-added features, it seems.) There were trips, sponsored conferences, etc., all aimed at persuading judges and court administrators that adoption of a PDC system was not a good idea. This lobbying effort worked. The idea is surely not dead, but it has not gained any ground since then.

  4. Mary Alice: Thanks for your comment. I did include a link to the Committee’s page at the end of the post 🙂

    Tom: Thanks for the link to Peter’s paper. I’m really interested in this and I plan to post much more in the future. I think with the momentum, now is a good time to get this on the radar again.

    Sean: Thanks for the comment–it’s great to have some context around this. Perhaps now that free access and state ownership of the law is gaining ground, we can make another push for PDC. The playing field might be a tad more level now–who knows–they still have the money and lobbying power. But–we have Carl! 😉

  5. I have written much about this issue from 1992 to present. One thing to remember, a lot of the fervor in 1994-97 related to West’s claims to copyright of the pagination to its reporters. After West lost it case in the joint citation case brought by HyperLaw and Matthew Bender (158. F.3d.693, 2d. Cir. 1998), the criticality of this diminished.

    That is not to say that there is not a need for a public
    domain citation of unpublished opinons that generally have Lexis or Westlaw citations only. The key component here is the necessity for use of the docket number in the citation. Current citation guides – ALWD and Blue Book and court guides generally accept a cite omitting the docket number where there is a Westlaw or Lexis cite: ALWD, Bluebook, and others. These citation rules are anti-competitive and only serves to require lawyers to have subscriptions to Westlaw or Lexis or both. As to sequence numbers, they can work sometimes – the Reporter of Decisions in NY is applying slip opinion sequence numbers – but, still, I have to cite cases that the Reporter had decided not to which to assign numbers – the other side cites to Westlaw.

    What I find odd is that when a court issues an opinion avaialable in a pdf file, there is a pin-point page citation – but, everyone leaves this out when the copy them for republication. So, if I have a Google Scholar version of an unpublished district court case, I have to go download (for free – yes – for free) from the court web site to find the internal page numbers. Wierd, or so wierd.

    I have written about this and even presented to the AALL on the topic last year. See and Malamud et al seemed uninterested in this completely.

    I will say there is a problem when so much writing (and funding) on the subject is by people who either have free access to Westlaw or Lexis or who do not on a day to day basis research or read case law for their personal professional activities without access to Lexis and Westlaw. I would add, the those who access cases only in their own jurisdiction also do not have the full picture.

  6. […] already written a lengthy explanation of vendor neutral citation, so I don’t want to rehash it all here. Basically, as long as the […]

  7. […] the Supreme Court of Illinois announced that it will adopt a vendor-neutral citation system. According to the press release, the official citation of Illinois Supreme Court and Appellate […]

  8. […] public domain has been bolstered by the Illinois Supreme Court. In what I believe to be a bold step which may address two problems that have irritated lawyers for […]

  9. […] is needed right now is a system of universal citation. 16 states** employ this method of publishing, which cuts out the middleman (private legal […]

  10. […] is a solution: universal citation, which is a jargony way of saying courts should just put their own simple citation on an opinion […]