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 The citations are “vendor neutral” because they do not cite to a commercial reporter.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:
- Case name
- Year of decision
- State’s 2 letter postal code
- Court name abbreviation
- Sequential number of the decision
- “U” designation for unpublished cases
- 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 law.gov-style 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:
AALL Citation Formats Committee
Vox PopuLII on Environmentally Friendly Citations [what they do in Canada, eh]