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copyright 1996 Robert J. Ambrogi

Internet Use Creates Call For New Citation System

By Robert J. Ambrogi

Does the growing availability of court decisions on the Internet create a need for a new system of case citation?

A special committee of the American Bar Association thinks so. On March 18, it issued a preliminary report calling on all courts in the U.S. to adopt a uniform system of case citation that is equally effective for cases published electronically or in print.

The committee -- the Special Committee on Citation Issues -- is accepting comments on the draft until April 22. On May 29, it will submit its final report to the ABA, which is scheduled to vote on the issue at its annual meeting in Orlando in August. (The full text of the draft is available on the ABA's Web site at:

Already on record in favor of a revamped citation system is the American Association of Law Libraries. In March 1995, it issued a report calling for a neutral system of citing cases by case name, year, court and opinion number, and use of paragraph numbers for pinpoint citations. (The AALL report is on the Internet at:

A handful of jurisdictions have already considered the issue, with mixed results:

Is There A Need?

Those who would change the citation system contend it is not suitable for a fast-approaching future in which most cases will be reported electronically. To encourage the use of new technologies, they believe, citations should be:

On the other side are those who do not so much oppose a neutral citation system as they believe such a system should not be mandatory or exclusive. West Publishing, for example, argues that market forces should determine which citations are used.

Opponents also believe a neutral citation system has a number of inherent problems. Among them:

The ABA Report

The ABA first took up this issue at its 1995 annual meeting. But rather than decide it, it appointed the special committee to consider bringing the citation system in line with the growing availability of cases on the Internet and computer bulletin boards.

The preliminary report takes somewhat of a middle ground, urging all jurisdictions to adopt a neutral citation system that is equally suitable for print and electronic cases, but also recommending that, until electronic versions of case reports become more common, citations should continue to include parallel print sources.

Specifically, the committee recommended that every court number its decisions sequentially within a year and that they number the paragraphs in each decision.

A decision would be cited by stating the year, a designator of the court, and the sequential number of the decision. If pinpoint citation is required to specific material in the decision, the cite would include the paragraph number.

Thus, using the committee's recommended format, a citation might read: 1996 SDNY 15, 26, 23 U.S.P.Q. 456. This would be the 15th decision released in 1996 by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; the cited material appears in paragraph 26. The remainder is the parallel citation to the printed case report.

Explaining the need for a new form of citation, the committee report said: "[T]he continued growth of electronic publication of case reports is certain. It is clear that citation methods which are satisfactory for printed reporters are not well suited to electronic databases and reporters. ... The adoption of a new citation method is essential to allow electronic publication of case reports to reach its full potential."

Reaction To Report

Brady C. Williamson, a partner with LaFollette & Sinykin, Madison, Wis., represents West Publishing on the citation issue. In a recent interview, he expressed satisfaction with the ABA report. "We're pleased with the draft report's unequivocal commitment to a citation form that serves printed and electronic citation forms equally well."

Referring to the report's recommendation that parallel citations continue to be used, he said that West has no objection to a generic form of citation, as long as it is used in conjunction with any established citation that tell the researcher where to find the case.

James Love is director of the Taxpayer Assets Project and the Consumer Project on Technology, two Ralph Nader-backed projects in Washington, D.C. TAP has been a leading force in the move for a neutral citation system.

Of the ABA report, Love commented, "We were thrilled by the report. Now the ABA, the American Association of Law Libraries, the American Association of Legal Publishers, several state bar associations, TAP, and most independent experts agree -- paragraph number plus a sequential number for opinions is the format for a new public domain citation system. We know what needs to be done. Now lets do it."

Robert J. Ambrogi, a lawyer in Rockport, Mass., is editor of, a monthly newsletter about the Internet published by Legal Communications Ltd., Philadelphia. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at (978) 546-7898.