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§ 1-500. Citation in Transition: From Proprietary Print Citations to Vendor- and Medium-Neutral Schemes

Neither of the major citation manuals gives much hint of the intense policy debate over citation norms or the dramatic changes in professional practice catalyzed by the shift from print to digital media. Over the past two decades, online and disc-based law collections have become primary research tools for most lawyers and judges. Simultaneously, the number of alternate sources of individual decisions, regulations, and statutes has exploded. Today, in many jurisdictions, legal research is carried out by means of at least a half dozen competing versions of appellate decisions distributed in print, online, and on disc. Because of these changes, there has been growing pressure on those ultimately responsible for citation norms, namely the courts, to establish new rules that no longer presuppose that some one publisher's print volume (created over a year after the decisions or statutes it compiles were handed down or enacted) is the key reference. Some jurisdictions have responded; many more are sure to follow. On the other hand, work habits and established practices die hard, especially when they align with vested commercial interests.

In 1996, the American Bar Association approved a resolution recommending that courts adopt a uniform public domain citation system "equally effective for printed case reports and for case reports electronically published on computer disks or network services." It proceeded to lay out the essential components of such a system. The American Association of Law Libraries had previously gone on record for "vendor and media neutral" citation. An increasing number of state courts have adopted citation schemes embodying the core elements recommended by these national bodies. For example, North Dakota state court opinions released after January 1, 1997 are to be cited according to the following North Dakota Supreme Court rule:

When available, initial citations must include the volume and initial page number of the North Western Reporter in which the opinion is published. The initial citation of any published opinion of the Supreme Court released on or after January 1, 1997, contained in a brief, memorandum, or other document filed with any trial or appellate court and the citation in the table of cases in a brief must also include a reference to the calendar year in which the decision was filed, followed by the court designation of "ND", followed by a sequential number assigned by the Clerk of the Supreme Court. A paragraph citation should be placed immediately following the sequential number assigned to the case. Subsequent citations within the brief, memorandum or other document must include the paragraph number and sufficient references to identify the initial citation.

N.D. R. Ct. 11.6 (b).

The Rule provides examples, e.g.:

For decisions of the North Dakota Court of Appeals, the formula is the same with the substitution of "ND App" for "ND." As intended, the system facilitates precise and immediate reference to a portion of a North Dakota appellate decision that is as effective whether the reader follows it using the court's own Web site or one of the commercial online services or finds it in a volume of the North Western Reporter. Since the key citation elements, including paragraph numbers, are embedded in each decision by the court, they are carried over into that print reporter and the commercial electronic services. As a complementary step, the North Dakota Supreme Court Web site furnishes the North Western Reporter citations for all decisions in its database, which currently reaches back through 1966. Consequently, researchers need not consult a commercial source to obtain the volume and page numbers associated with over four decades of decisions.

While the formats and other details vary slightly, other jurisdictions have implemented case citation schemes employing the same basic structure – case name, year, court, sequential number, and (within the opinion) paragraph number or numbers. In addition to North Dakota these include Colorado, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. In 2009 Arkansas began to designate its appellate decisions in this way, while retaining page numbers within the court-released pdf file as the means for pinpoint cites. Four other states, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and, most recently, Illinois, have adopted medium-neutral citation systems, but along significantly different lines. At the federal level, the progress has, to date, been minimal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit began to apply medium-neutral citations to its own decisions in 1994, but it has never directed attorneys to use them or employed them itself in referring to prior decisions that have appeared in the Federal Reporter series. Among district courts, the District of South Dakota appears to stand alone. Since 1996, some, although not all, of its judges have applied paragraph numbers and case designations in the format "2008 DSD 6" to their decisions and used the system in citations to them. (See § 2-230.)

Given their quite different structure, codified statutes and regulations lend themselves to vendor- and medium-neutral citation. Evolving professional practice, influenced by the prevalence of electronic media, is reducing the hold that certain preferred print editions once held on statute and regulation citations. (See §§ 2-335, 2-410.)

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