What is "legal citation"? It is a standard language that allows one writer to refer to legal authorities with sufficient precision and generality that others can follow the references. Because writing by lawyers and judges is so dependent on such references, it is a language of abbreviations and special terms. While this encryption creates difficulty for lay readers, it achieves a dramatic reduction in the space consumed by the, often numerous, references. As you become an experienced reader of law writing, you will learn to follow a line of argument straight through the many citations embedded in it. Even so, citations are a bother until the reader wishes to follow one. The fundamental tradeoff that underlies any citation scheme is one between providing full information about the referenced work and keeping the text as uncluttered as possible. Standard abbreviations and codes help achieve a reasonable compromise of these competing interests.
A reference properly written in "legal citation" strives to do at least three things, within limited space:
Consider the following illustration of the problem faced and the tradeoff struck by "legal citation." In 1989, the Supreme Court decided an important copyright case. There are countless sources of the full text opinion. One is LexisNexis, where the following appears prior to the opinion. If a lawyer, wanting to refer to all or part of that opinion, were to include all the identifying material shown in LexisNexis in her brief (with a similar amount of identifying material for other authorities) there would be little room for anything else. Readers of such a brief would have an impossible time following lines of argument past the massive interruptions of citation.
COMMUNITY FOR CREATIVE NON-VIOLENCE ET AL. v. REID
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
490 U.S. 730; 109 S. Ct. 2166; 104 L. Ed. 2d 811; 1989 U.S. LEXIS 2727; 57 U.S.L.W. 4607; 10 U.S.P.Q.2D (BNA) 1985; Copy. L. Rep. (CCH) P26,425; 16 Media L. Rep. 1769
March 29, 1989, Argued
June 5, 1989, Decided
PRIOR HISTORY: CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED
STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT.
DISPOSITION: 270 U. S. App. D. C. 26, 846 F. 2d 1485, affirmed.
In standard "legal citation," the reference to this opinion becomes simply:
Cmty. for Creative Nonviolence v. Reid, 490 U.S. 730 (1989).
With economy this identifies the document and allows another lawyer to retrieve the decision from a wide range of print and electronic sources. The "identifier" of "490 U.S. 730" suffices for a reader who has access to West's Supreme Court Reporter published by Thomson Reuters or to the Lawyers' Edition, Second Series published in print and online by LexisNexis or to Westlaw or to the myriad other online and disc-based sources of Supreme Court decisions. It also tells the reader that this is a 1989 decision of the United States Supreme Court (and not, say, a fifty year old opinion of a U.S. District Court).
The task of "legal citation" in short is to provide sufficient information to the reader of a brief or memorandum to aid a decision about which authorities to check as well as in what order to consult them and to permit efficient and precise retrieval all of that, without consuming any more space or creating any more distraction than is absolutely necessary.