Thoughts on Legal Citation

Thoughts on Legal Citation

My relationship with the Bluebook goes back to when I was a first-year law student in 2004. There have been moments of love and moments of hate, but mostly, as someone who appreciates order, structure, and rules, love.

As a legal reference librarian, my interest in legal citation is more research-focused than anything.  There are few things that make my heart soar more than a work of legal scholarship that includes carefully drafted and correct citations to the sources referenced so that readers can find those sources with minimum pain and maximum efficiency.

However, legal citation has several purposes beyond just making it easier for researchers to find stuff.  “Citation Literacy” is a fascinating new article in the Arkansas Law Review by Professor Alexa Z. Chew of UNC Law School.  In the article, Professor Chew discusses four “communicative purposes” of legal citation: “(1) to locate the cited source … , (2) to communicate information to the reader about the weight of the cited authority … , (3) to demonstrate the writer’s credibility … and (4) to avoid plagiarism through proper attribution.” (pages 879-880)

Professor Chew also discusses what she calls the “untaught skill of reading citations.”  (page 890)  By removing citation information from cases in casebooks read by U.S. law students, she argues, the “dominant message sent by the first-year law school curriculum about legal citation” is that providing support for statements of law is either unimportant, optional, or both.  (pages 891-892)

Additionally, Professor Chew contends that, when law students read cases that do not include citations, they are not learning the skill of reading cases holistically.  This is not ideal, according to Professor Chew, because “understanding a case’s citations and how the information they encode informs the surrounding text is an essential part of reading a case in the first place.”  (page 895)

I was glad that Professor Chew also discussed the impact of learning legal citation on foreign-trained lawyers who are studying the U.S. legal system.  This part of the article made me re-think this issue myself.  When I taught substantive U.S. law classes in Germany last year, I gave them versions of cases that I had edited myself.  I also, for the sake of brevity, removed citations from those cases.

Looking back, I wish I had done more with Bluebook and legal citation with my German students.  I believe it would have helped them understand our legal system better, and it also would have helped them with their future forays into the world of U.S. legal research.

Speaking of teaching legal citation to non-U.S. law students, I maintain our library’s Bluebook Citation Guide for LL.M. Students.  After reading Professor Chew’s article, this guide seems, perhaps, overly procedural in nature.  I am now considering adding a section about why citation is important, and citing Professor Chew’s article in it.

My own experience as a foreign student contributes to my thinking on this issue as well.  Germany does not have an equivalent to the Bluebook citation system, or really any standardized system of legal citation at all as far as I know.  When I was writing my LL.M. thesis in Germany earlier this year, I was given a 4-page handout by my faculty supervisor, with examples about how to cite sources in the footnotes and in the bibliography (Literaturverzeichnis).  I did my best to follow the protocol, but I’m still not sure if I got everything right.

Below is a picture of footnotes 49-52 from my German LL.M. thesis:

The sources cited here are, in order: an article from the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz), a Federal Constitutional Court decision, a scholarly commentary on the Basic Law, and a U.S. law review article.

(Of course I did not notice until this very moment that footnote 49 should end in a period and not a semi-colon.  I guess I know now for sure that I did not get everything right.)

In these and all the footnotes in my thesis, author-written works are basically cited in a shortened format because full-length citations are provided in the bibliography.  Here is the bibliography entry for the Eberle article cited in footnotes 51 and 52:

I was told by people who read my thesis that my use of footnotes and citation was, perhaps, more extensive than is the norm in German legal scholarship.  But they knew that I am trained in U.S. law, and that I have spent years reading U.S. law review articles, which are heavily annotated compared to German legal periodicals, so it was understandable.

Anyway, I am very pleased to have seen an article in the legal literature about citation, and I hope this is a trend that continues.  I agree with Professor Chew that this is an important area of legal education that, perhaps, should be considered in a different light than it has been in the past.

Finally, I would like to briefly mention a new citation guide that we recently received in the HLS Library collection:

Global Arbitration Review’s UCIA – Universal Citation in International Arbitration
General Editor, Stephen Anway ; Assistant Editors, Alexis Martinez and Jonathan Allen
Published in 2018 by Law Business Research Ltd.
ISBN 9781912377299
Hollis Catalog Record

This is a guide to the developing convention on style and citation that is used by practitioners in the field of international arbitration.  It is “intended for use in all writings related to international arbitration – from memorials to awards, from scholarly articles to student briefs.”  (Editor’s Preface)  And, mercifully, it is much shorter than the Bluebook.

 

 

 

 

About: Jennifer Allison

Librarian for Foreign, Comparative, and International Law, Harvard Law School Library.

2 comments

  1. Jennifer – I can add one more benefit to the list. As we move into the era of machine learning and text, a standardized system of citation is very helpful. When analyzing text, we often want to remove (or temporarily ignore) citations. We may want to count citations, search for specific citations, and so on. The more variability in citations, the harder it is to teach the computer what to keep and what to leave. For example, look at Supreme Court decisions prior to the Bluebook. Across opinions and even within opinions, citation styles vary. The idiosyncrasies vary from small (a comma or no comma following the case name and before the citation) to more significant (abbreviations, order of reporters cited). The problem compounds as you go from jurisdiction to jurisdiction as well as from the past to the present. Although the Bluebook is a beast, when it comes to computers and text it can be a friendly beast.

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