From our friends over at Google Scholar comes word last week of changes to the “Cited by” function within their legal opinions database. For those of you not familiar with this feature, “Cited by” appears as a link under items returned in a result set. For example, the first opinion returned after a search for “347 U.S. 483” indicates it is “Cited by” 32,903 sources.
Clicking on the link brings up a separate page which, before last week’s changes, sorted citing documents by their prominence but which are now ranked by the the extent of discussion of the cited case. This means that cases that support, overturn, or clarify an opinion are ranked above those that just mention it.
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 The citations are “vendor neutral” because they do not cite to a commercial reporter.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.