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JILT 2000 (3) - Lynn Foster


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Obstacles to Citation Reform

Lynn Foster
Associate Dean and Professor of Law
UALR Law School


In this paper, presented at the BILETA Citations Workshop in March 2000, the author discusses obstacles to the adoption of medium-neutral citation form, focussing on the experience in the United States.

Keywords: Legal citations, Medium-neutral citations, Universal citations, Neutral citations

This is a Commentary published on 31 October 2000.

Citation: Foster L, 'Obstacles to Citation Reform', Commentary 2000 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

1. Introduction

The subject of this paper is 'obstacles to citation reform'. Let me define some terms at the outset. By citation reform, I mean the adoption by relevant parties of medium neutral citation form. By 'medium neutral citation reform', I mean a citation form that is assigned at the time the law, of whatever type, is created, and that can be used without modification in either the print medium or the electronic medium.[1] This paper is drawn from my experience over the past six years in creating and advocating medium neutral citation forms. I chaired the American Association of Law Libraries Task Force of Citation Forms during its existence in 1994 and 1995. Since 1996 I have served as a member of the American Association of Law Libraries Citation Formats Committee. Both of these groups have carefully crafted medium neutral citation forms for law in all United States jurisdictions. However, the views expressed here are my own and not those of the Committee or of the American Association of Law Libraries.

I would group obstacles to medium neutral citation form into four types:

  1. Disagreement with the basic premise

  2. Economic self-interest

  3. Lack of technology

  4. Ignorance, confusion and resistance to change

2. Disagreement with the basic premise

Medium neutral citation form is premised on the idea that in most cases, one citation form can serve multiple versions of a text. The first medium neutral citation forms were developed thousands of years ago, for information written on scrolls (which of course have no page numbers). Biblical citations are an example:

Genesis 25:19

Plays are a form of writing found in many different textual versions, and they too have medium neutral citation forms:

Macbeth 5.3.274-79

The above citation forms can be used with scrolls, books, and electronic texts.

Medium neutral citation form has existed for decades in the case of statutes, which are often published in competing print versions but almost always with the same numbering system, which is not dependent on paging:

42 USC § 1983

Thus, the idea of medium neutral citations is not new. The migration of legal publishing from print to electronic form, and the complications caused by the necessity for page numbers, inspired some people to envision a medium neutral form for all case law:

Frigaard v. Seffens, 1999 SD 123, ¶¶ 33-36

Others, however, favored the idea of source-specific citations, which always direct the reader to the exact source that the writer used. The problem with source-specific citations is the number of sources. Consider the number of sources, each with its own unique citation, for the 1995 United States Supreme Court case Adarand Constructors v. Pena:

515 U.S. 200 [2]

115 S. Ct. 2097 [3]

132 L. Ed. 2d 158 [4]

1995 U.S. LEXIS 4037 [5]

63 U.S.L.W. 4523 [6]

67 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 1828 [7]

66 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P43,556 [8]

78 Rad. Reg. 2d (P & F) 357 [9]

95 Cal. Daily Op. Service 4381 [10]

95 Daily Journal DAR 7503 [11]

40 Cont. Cas. Fed. (CCH) P76 [12]

Under a source-specific rule, a writer could cite Adarand to any one of these sources. The reader would in all likelihood be using another source for Adarand, and would find it difficult to track internal or 'jump' citations.

Historically, the solution to different texts of the same opinion has been the 'parallel citation'. The writer would cite both the official reporter and the West Publishing Company[13] reporter, and both sets of paging, so that the reader, who would have one set but not the other, would be able to find the case in either. Some supporters of source-specific citations wish to include parallel citations to West reporters, so that a case citation would be required to look like this:

Frigaard v. Seffens, 1999 SD 123, 599 N.W.2d 646, ¶¶ 33-36

Others want to include a mandatory parallel citation to a Uniform Resource Locator, the Internet 'address' so that a citation to a law review article would look like this:

Charles Brill, Legal Protection of Collections of Facts, 1998 Computer L. Rev. & Technology J. 1, <>

Our task force and committee members have debated these alternatives since 1994. We decided that specifying a source destroys the purpose of medium neutral citations, and that there is no need to refer to a specific source unless this is essential to the writer's purpose. Whereas including a URL can sometimes be useful, often it is a dead end that leads one only to an error message, and with the constant improvement of search engines it is increasingly easy to find publications on the Internet.

3. Economic Self-Interest

The most significant opponent to universal citations in the United States has been that of a major legal publisher which enjoys a de facto monopoly over the hard copy publishing of case law. Since 1996, this publisher's books have also been the preferred citation form by the pre-eminent guide to citation form in the U.S., The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation.[14] This publisher believed, probably with good cause, that its sales would be hurt in jurisdictions that adopted universal case citation, as less expensive computerized legal research services would become available and attorneys would turn to them. Therefore, the publisher seemed to do almost everything within its power to prevent the adoption of medium neutral forms.[15]

Another group with economic self-interest was the state reporters of decisions. In a number of states, reporters of decisions receive money from the printing and sale of decisions. These reporters believed that any change that would encourage attorneys to turn to electronic versions of case law would hurt their sales, and thus, their budgets.

4. Lack of Technology

The hundreds of courts in the United States are all over the map, both literally and as regards their automated status. Those jurisdictions which are technologically the most backward may not be ready to implement universal citations. Additionally, individual attorneys and judges vary widely in their access to and facility with research technology. A judge who still uses mostly books to meet his or her needs and who has researchers to contend with parallel citations and star paging is unlikely to see any need for universal citations. Technological limitations have been the focus of task force and committee discussion from time to time. Originally, the task force wished to recommend that paragraph numbers be designated with the paragraph symbol '¶' but desisted when a major legal publisher advised the task force that it was not capable of providing numbered paragraph symbols. The publisher has since gained that capability,[16] and the committee has added the '¶' to the citation format. Another lengthy debate over technology ensued when the task force discussed how a multi-circuited appellate court where the circuits were not centrally controlled could assign one numbering system to its opinions. One task force member assured the rest of us that it was perfectly possible for software to assign one sequence of numbers to opinions from different circuits.

5. Ignorance, Confusion and Resistance to Change

In presentations I have made over the past six years to attorneys, librarians, law students, and reporters of decisions, the difficulty in explaining these issues has surprised me. Many people, particularly computer users, understand immediately. Others do not, and often come away from their first exposure to the medium neutral citation with misconceptions. Some persons believe that converting to medium neutral citations will require retrospective conversion of citations (it does not). Others believe that universal citations will work only with computers, and that book owners will not be able to find cases that are issued with universal citations. One creative argument, advanced at the outset but not heard since, was that use of paragraph numbers in cases would blur the distinction between case law and statutory law[17].

6. Conclusion

The conversion of case law from paper form to electronic form started the impetus for this change of citation form, and the trend will only strengthen over time. In the United States, law posted on official government sites will, over time, replace printed official reporters. Interestingly, both Canada and Australia, common law countries with far fewer political subdivisions than the United States (Canada has ten provinces, and Australia six states) and with no active opposition from legal publishers, have achieved consensus as to their medium-neutral forms and are farther along than is the United States.[18] However, in my own state, Arkansas, there is a saying that 'sooner or later, water must run downhil', and sooner or later medium-neutral citations will become the rule rather than the exception. Our committee is slowly but thoroughly considering the issues surrounding medium-neutral citations in all types of law and has recently published the Universal Citation Guide[19] as a continuing effort to foster the change to medium-neutral forms.


American Association of Law Libraries Task Force Report <>

American Association of Law Libraries Committee on Citation Formats <>

Ordering information for the Universal Citation Guide <>



1. For the original definition of 'medium neutral citation form,' see American Association of Law Libraries Task Force on Citation Formats Report ¶ 17 (1995) (hereinafter Task Force Report).

2. United States Reports , the official reporter for United States Supreme Court decisions.

3. West's Supreme Court Reporter.

4. Lawyers Edition United States Reports, the version published today by LEXIS Publishing.

5. The LEXIS-NEXIS citation.

6. United States Law Week, a looseleaf service published by the Bureau of National Affairs.

7. Fair Employment Practice Cases, today a combination CD-ROM/hard copy set published by the Bureau of National Affairs.

8. Employment Practice Decisions, today a combination CD-ROM/hard copy set published by Commerce Clearing House.

9. Radio Regulations, today Communications Regulation, a combination CD-ROM/hard copy set published by Pike & Fischer.

10. California Daily Opinion Service, today an Internet service published by Cal Law.

11. The Los Angeles Daily Journal, a print legal newspaper.

12. Contracts Cases Federal, today published in CD-ROM, online and Internet formats by Commerce Clearing House.

13. Now WestGroup, since it was purchased by Thomson Publishing Group in 1996.

14. Rule 10.4 and Table T.1 requires writers to cite a United States Supreme Court case to the West reporter in preference to other unofficial reporters, and to cite state cases to the West reporter in preference to the state official reporter (unless one is citing one's own state cases to the court of one's own state, in which case both the official reporter and the West reporter are to be cited).

15. For its arguments against medium neutral citation forms, see Task Force Report, supra n. 2, ¶¶ 29-46. West has argued against the adoption of medium neutral forms before a number of state courts and also at the federal level.

16. American Association of Law Libraries Committee on Citation Formats, Universal Citation Guide ¶ 28 n. 20 (1999).

17. Task Force Report, supra n. 2, ¶ 61 n.70 (argument by Christopher G. Wren & Jill Wren, Citation Reform: The Page as a Metaphorical Unit)

18. See the Australasian Legal Information Institute's website for an Australian model of medium-neutral legal citation. In Canada, Alberta, British Columbia and the Supreme Court of Canada all publish their opinions electronically using medium-neutral form.

19. American Association of Law Libraries Guide, supra n. 17, is published in print form by the Wisconsin Bar Association. For ordering information, click here.

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