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Citation of Legal and Non-Legal Electronic Database Information

Candace Elliott Person, RN, JD*

The law . . . should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone.–Franz Kafka[1]

When change occurs in how legal materials are produced and published, the profession must respond appropriately in the best interest of bench, bar and public. –Gary Sherman [2]

In the past four years, online legal and non-legal information has erupted on the many databases[3] which make up the Internet.[4] Information from around the world is now readily available at our fingertips. With enhanced access to worldwide networks of data bases, citation problems have also emerged. What format should we use to cite online cases and other materials? Various legal and other professional organizations have been addressing these questions for several years.[5] Most of the proposed formats are still in the draft stages. This is probably because the online electronic database networks are changing daily, and new questions arise almost as quickly.

While the various organizations continue to refine recommendations for citation systems that will not totally disrupt the way we do business today, we need some kind of guidelines to cite the sources that many of us are already using. This paper provides interim guidelines for citation of legal and non-legal sources. It is a combination of suggestions from legal and non-legal professional writing groups, applied to the legal context. The guidelines are basic and general in nature, and can be applied to the Michigan Citation System, the BLUEBOOK format, or others used by attorneys. But first, a bit of history to understand the context in which these guidelines are proposed.

Evolution or Revolution? Legal Groups Grapple

    In 1994, the Judicial Electronic Data Interchange Subcommittee of the Science and Technology Section of the ABA proposed supporting a non-proprietary system to cite online opinions. It presented a draft resolution to the ABA House of Delegates, requesting that the ABA support the "development and adoption of revised case conventions" which would:

    1. enable citation to cases and materials promulgated or published in a variety of media, including electronic media;
    2. facilitate location of cited references published in a variety of media;
    3. permit diverse publishers to publish public domain cases and materials and citations thereto in a variety of media without offending copyrights of other publishers;
    4. permit lawyers and judges using different media from different publishers to sensibly discuss the same public domain reference; and
    5. achieve a reasonable degree of consistency across jurisdictional lines in order to facilitate a broad publishing market and to simplify legal research.[6]

    As a result of these and other recommendations, a Special Committee on Citation Issues was formed to study and make recommendations to the 1996 ABA House of Delegates. The committee addressed primarily uniform citations to court decisions across the country. Pertinent Committee recommendations were as follows[7]:

    • "[E]ach court assign distinctive sequential indexing numbers [to be used in electronic and printed reporters] to decisions it decides should be released for general distribution to the public."[8]
    • All jurisdictions adopt a mandatory universal citation system, "citing to a decision by stating the year, a unique designator selected by the court, and a sequential number assigned to the decision."[9]
      • Smith v. Jones, 1996 5Cir 15, ¶ 18, 22 F.3d 955[10]

    [The 15 in the citation indicates the 15th decision released by the 5th circuit, and the 18 refers to paragraph 18 of the opinion].

    • "[A]ll jurisdictions adopt the use of paragraph numbers assigned by the court as locator markers within decisions."[11]
    • "During the transition period [to primary reliance on electronic case reports] . . . in addition to the universal citation, all jurisdictions strongly encourage parallel citation to a print source, if there is one that is commonly used in the jurisdiction."[12] Where a printed copy of an opinion is not available, courts should also require attorneys to provide copies to opposing counsel and the court.

    During the extensive debate over the above recommendations[13], significant dissent arose.[14] Dissenters declared that the recommended citation form is "incompatible with continued production of print case reports in many jurisdictions, and is likely to 'balkanize' and fragment the present established citation system, thereby complicating, confusing, and making legal research and verification of citations more costly and time consuming."[15] They feared that the proposed system would be generic and exclude parallel citation to specific sources actually used. They were also concerned that confusion could arise when courts release subsequently edited versions or out-of-order opinions.[16] "Books are today, and will be for some years to come, the lowest cost and most widely available source of legal opinions for the public."[17] The bottom line was that "[a] format-neutral system will spawn unedited, poor-quality copy and loss of standardization."[18]

    On August 6, 1996, the ABA voted to approve the recommendations as presented. Judicial groups recommended that the recommendations be tabled indefinitely. As a result of the majority vote, states across the country are encouraged to use systems that are compatible with these recommendations.[19]

Online Citation Guidelines

    Even though the entire legal community has not yet reached a consensus,[20] we already cite to cases and other materials from online electronic databases. But how specifically should we cite to other sources? The new 16th edition of the Uniform System of Citation [BLUEBOOK] provides guidance:

      When a case is unreported and available on a widely used electronic database, then it may be cited to that database. Provide the case name, docket number, database identifier, court name, and full date of the most recent major disposition of the case. The database identifier must contain enough information to enable a reader to identify the database and find the case. If the database has identifying codes or numbers that uniquely identify the case (as do LEXIS and Westlaw after 1986), these must be given. Screen or page numbers, if assigned, should be preceded by an asterisk. . . . Cases that have not been assigned unique database identifiers should provide all relevant information . . . .[21]

    The BLUEBOOK does not define the term "widely used electronic database." Only LEXIS and Westlaw cites are given. However, BLUEBOOK Rule 17.3.3, provides the most current Internet characterization from the traditional legal community:

      Because of the transient nature of many Internet sources, citation to Internet sources is discouraged unless the materials are unavailable in printed form or are difficult to obtain in their original form. When citing to materials found on the Internet, provide the name of the author (if any), the title or top-level heading of the material being cited, and the Uniform Resource Locator (URL). The Uniform Resource Locator is the electronic address of the information and should be given in angled brackets. For electronic journals and publications, the actual date of publication should be given. Otherwise, provide the most recent modification date of the source preceded by the term "last modified" or the date of access preceded by the term "visited" if the modification date is unavailable . . . .[22]

    Those who use the Internet extensively find additional guidance from non-legal interdisciplinary professional writing organizations, such as the American Psychological Association and others.[23] These organizations differ somewhat in their recommendations. Nevertheless, they are much further ahead in the use of electronic data base citation rules than the legal profession.[24] The following suggestions from these organizations, either unedited or adapted by this author, provide added direction:

    • "To cite files available for viewing/downloading via the World Wide Web, give the author's name (if known), the full title of the work in quotation marks, the title of the complete work if applicable in italics, the full http address, and the date of visit."[25]
    • Since Internet documents are prone to change, specify the date of the citation. Give a modification date of the version used, if known. If there is no date, specify the date at which it was first accessed (prefixed by "accessed" in parentheses). Optionally, give all dates, particularly if you suspect that the document may have been amended.[26]
    • Web pages are referred to by the top-level heading. If there is no heading, refer to the title.[27]
    • If a Web page lists an e-mail address, and no other information is available to suggest the author of the page, the e-mail address should fill the author position of the reference.[28] It could be very helpful to your reader to place the e-mail address in brackets after the author's name, particularly if there is little information available on the author.
    • Cites are generally case-sensitive. Therefore, all characters should be cited as they are presented. Do not make any capitalization or punctuation changes to cites used.[29]
    • Do not put a period or other punctuation at the end of any URL (e.g., at the end of http://www . . . html ).[30] Some organizations, including the BLUEBOOK, recommend setting the URL off with brackets ("<>") so that a period can be used at the end of the cite.
    • "If a URL should run longer than the space available on a line, it may be broken at a slash ("/") character, keeping the slash as the last character on the line, in the same way as a dash ("-") is used to divide hyphenated words."[31] Do not add a dash at the end of the line to indicate more to come on the next line.
    • "The location of the part or contribution within the host document shall be given if the format of the document includes pagination or an equivalent internal referencing system."[32]
    • The ISO[33] order of preference of location specifications is: page, screen, paragraph, or line number, if they are fixed features of an internal referencing system of the document; labeled part, section, table, scene, or other text-related designation; any host-specific designation.
    • If none of the above are present, the extent of the document may be indicated in square brackets which may include total number of lines, screens, etc. ("[43 lines]").

    Characterizing Internet Material

      Many attorneys experience difficulty in deciding how to characterize the Internet material to be cited. In other words, is it an article, a report, or something else? Is it from a bar organization, from an individual with a web page, or is it simply someone's thoughts from an e-mail message? This is the initial determination before citing any Internet material. In some cases the writer may need to request more information via any included e-mail addresses or telephone numbers. Additional exploration around the cite may also be necessary to understand the context of the information to be cited.

      As a working example, I pulled an article off the Internet to use with a legal writing class. Initially, the printed Internet material indicated that it was a newsletter article from the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA. We are fortunate that the document gave us this much information. Other documents are not as helpful. At the top of the printed copy of the document, and in a bar at the top of the computer monitor screen, was the following string of characters:

      Do we really need to give our reader all this "stuff"? Answer: Yes, we do need to give our reader the entire string of characters. But why? Well, surprisingly, the characters make a great deal of sense when we dissect them. This string of marks is the Uniform Resource Locator (URL).[35] URLs are "the addresses of the Internet today—with nearly all services addressable in this way."[36] Generally, URLs "are a line of words, punctuated by slashes, colons, sometimes question-marks or ampersands, and percent signs."[37] Much of the Internet is rooted in the Unix [38] operating system,

        [W]here long file names are fine, where all-lowercase names are the norm and where meaningless-bizarre-cryptic-shorthand-acronyms take the place of almost-understandable-by-human-being commands, turning what should be simple operations and processes into macho ritualistic rites of passage shrouded in mystery and revered by geek wannabes.[39]

      A dissection of the above URL follows:

      • "http:" stands for hypertext transfer protocol. This is the first part of any Web site's URL address. "HTTP is also the generic term for software running the server part of the World Wide Web Internet service."[40]
      • "www" is short for the World Wide Web, which is a hypertext-based information service that makes collections of information available across the Internet. It is essentially a passive service, which means that the user goes from site to site, by simply clicking on the highlighted words (link) and moving from place to place. This generally happens without logging on or specifying a user name—connections from one server to the next happen as background operations, transparent to the user.[41]
      • "abanet" indicates the network on the www on which the document can be found
      • "org" indicates that aba is an organization—one category of entities on the Web
      • "lpm" indicates what unit in the aba authored the document—in this case the Law Practice Management Division of the ABA
      • "newsletters" indicates that the document is part of a division newsletter
      • "inet_wav" identifies the title of the article
      • "html" indicates that the document is in hypertext markup language. This means that it is a plain-text file (also known as ASCII), which can be used with text editor or word-processing software.[42]

      With this string of characters now making some sense, we could just give our readers this citation alone. However, since all our readers do not have access to the Internet, we will need to give additional information so all readers can find the document--assuming that it is also located in another place. However, the BLUEBOOK seems to take the opposite approach:

        If a database contains documents published and available separately, it is not necessary to indicate that they are also available in database form unless the documents in original form are difficult to obtain. Thus, most newspapers,
        corporate or government reports, and statutory or legislative materials should
        be cited in their original form even if they are found or obtained by means of a database search. . . .

      With these two approaches, we potentially have the "techies" and the "traditionals" wanting to cite only to their own research location, or wanting the other group to include both cites, if there are two cites. It should be interesting to watch this develop over the next few years.

      Today, more and more documents are found only online. The BLUEBOOK addresses this situation in Rule 17.3.3:

        Citations to journals that appear only on the Internet should include the volume number, the title of the journal, and the sequential article number. Pinpoint citations should refer to the paragraph number, if available: Dan L. Burk, Trademarks Along the Infobahn: A First Look at the Emerging Law of Cybermarks, 1 RICH. J.L.. & TECH. 1, ¶ 12 (Apr. 10, 1995) <http://www.urich. edu/~jolt/vlil/burk.html>.

      Using the previous general guidelines with the BLUEBOOK rules, our sample document would be cited as:

        Bruce L. Dorner, Joining the Internet Wave, COUNSELOR'S COMPUTER & MANAGEMENT REPORT NEWSLETTER ¶ 7 (Fall, 1995; accessed May 18, 1996) < newsletters/inet_wav.html>.

      If this cite were used in a Michigan court document, Michigan citation format I.C.7, combined with the above guidelines, would indicate that it would be cited as:

        Dorner, Joining the Internet Wave, Counselor's Computer & Management Report Newsletter (Chicago, Ill: ABA Section of Law Practice Management, Fall, 1995; accessed May 18, 1996), ¶ 7 <>.

      In the future, legal and other professional communities will undoubtedly reach some kind of consensus on citation formats. Until that time, we will need to improvise as best we can with the constantly evolving online databases. The proposed standards discussed in this paper will give some guidance to legal writers, and perhaps even encourage them to use online database cites when needed. "Th[ese are] . . . evolving standard[s]. This document should be considered under construction."[44]

    * Copyright 1996 All Rights Reserved by Candace Elliott Person
    Candace Elliott Person is an adjunct professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Western Michigan University, and Lansing Community College. She teaches the law of cyberspace, health law, medical malpractice issues, scholarly writing, legal research and writing, Internet research, and critical legal thinking. She is a legal education consultant and practices in the areas of internet law, health law, and small business law.

    [1] Gary Wolf <>, Who Owns the Law? HOTWIRED 2.05 (quoting Franz Kafka) (accessed June 28, 1996) <http://www.hotwired/ 2.05/features/>.

    [2] Gary Sherman & Robert C. Berring, Universal Citation Systems: Will Tinkering With the Future be the End of Reliable, Standardized Opinions? A.B.A. J. 75-76 (JULY 1996).

    [3] A database is a "collection of information, stored and organized for easy searching. A database can refer to something as simple as a well-sorted filing cabinet, but today most databases reside on computers because they offer better access." Tom Lichty, THE OFFICIAL AMERICA ONLINE FOR WINDOWS TOUR GUIDE 498 (2d ed. 1994).

    [4] "The Internet is a global system for linking other computer networks together," while "internet is the generic term for any group of networks that have been connected together." C. BURGESS ALLISON, THE LAWYER'S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET 334 (ABA, 1995).

    [5] E.g., American Psychological Association; Modern Language Association; Turabian; International Organization for Standardization. See also American Association of Law Libraries, Report of the AALL Task Force on Citation Formats (March 1, 1995; accessed September 21, 1996) < citeform.html#5>.

    [6] Proposed Citation System for Wisconsin, Report to Board of Bar Governors Technology Resource Committee (June 22, 1994; accessed June 30, 1996) <>.

    [7] ABA Special Committee on Citation Issues Report and Recommendations (May 23, 1996; accessed July 15, 1996) <http//>.

    [8] Id. ¶ 25.

    [9] Id. ¶ 26.

    [10] would use the citation format given by the federal circuit in its decisions, according to William Haggerty. Michigan currently has no plans to change its citations system. However, if it were to use the newly recommended ABA citation format, an example cite may appear like this: Smith v Jones, 1996 Mich 15, ¶ 18; 444 NW3d 333 (1996). The significant result of the ABA recommendations appears to be that, if implemented by a state, there would be no more individual state reporter cites.

    [11] Id. ¶ 36.

    [12] Id. ¶ 38.

    [13] Sherman & Berring, supra note 2.

    [14] Frederick A. Muller, AALL Task Force on Citation Formats Final Report—Dissenting Opinion, THE CATCHLINE 2-8 (May 1995). Frederick A. Muller is the Reporter of Decisions for New York. William Haggerty, Michigan's Reporter of Decisions, provided a copy of this dissent, which reflects many of his thoughts about the recommendations.

    [15] Id. at 2.

    [16] Id. at 3-5.

    [17] Id. at 5.

    [18] Robert C. Berring, supra note 2, at 76.

    [19] ABA Special Committee on Citation Issues, Committee Report and Recommendation (accessed August 18, 1996) <>; telephone interview with Marilyn Steinke, ABA staff director assigned to the Citation Committee (August 14, 1996).

    [20] For an extensive discussion of the political and legal issues involved in the case citation controversy, see James H. Wyman, Freeing the Law: Case Reporter Copyright and the Universal Citation System, FLA. ST. U. L. REV. Ausley Scholarship Paper (1996) <>.

    [21] THE BLUEBOOK: A UNIFORM SYSTEM OF CITATION, R. 10.8.1(a) (16th ed. 1996).

    [22] Id. R. 17.3.3.

    [23] See, supra note 5.

    [24] The American Association of Law Librarians has also been studying these issues for several years. See AALL, User Guide to the AALL Medium Neutral Citation (Draft 2.2, February, 1996; accessed September 3, 1996) <>.

    [25] Janice R. Walker, MLA-Style Citations of Electronic Sources, Vers. 1.0 (endorsed by the Alliance for Computers & Writing), University of South Florida (January, 1995; revised April, 1995; accessed July 13, 1996) < mla/html>.

    [26] Adapted from: Michael B. Quinion, Citing Online Sources (updated June 21, 1996; accessed July 13, 1996) < citation.htm>; and Mark Wainwright, Citation Style for Internet Sources (May 12, 1995; updated February 12, 1996; accessed July 13, 1996) < users/maw13/citation.html>.

    [27] Land, T [a.k.a. Beads], Web Extension to American Psychological Association Style (WEAPAS) (Rev. 1.2.4) (modified March 31, 1996; accessed July 13, 1996) <>.

    [28] Id.

    [29] Id.

    [30] Id.

    [31] Id.

    [32] ISO/TC 46/SC 9 Secretariat, ISO Draft International Standard 690-2: Bibliographic References to Electronic Documents (revised May 21, 1996; accessed July 13, 1996) < tc46sc9/standard/ 690-2e.htm>.

    [33] ISO is the abbreviation for the International Organization for Standardization, whose address is: National Library of Canada, Ottawa K1A 0N4, Canada. Id.

    [34] Id.

    [35] Bruce Gingery <bgingery@Wyoming.COM>, Cheyenne, Wyoming, Uniform Resource Locators (accessed July 13, 1996) <>.

    [36] Id.

    [37] Id.

    [38] The UNIX operating system was originally developed at Bell Laboratories-now owned by Unix System Laboratories (a division of Novell). It is a superior program development system. Burgess Allison, supra note 4, at 339; Tom Lichty, supra note 3, at 516.

    [39] Burgess Allison, Getting in: How business lawyers can use the Internet, BUSINESS LAW TODAY (March/April, 1996; accessed July 13, 1996) <>. This article was based on excerpts from THE LAWYER'S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET, supra note 4.

    [40] C. BURGESS ALLISON, supra note 4, at 334.

    [41] Id. at 339.

    [42] Gingery, supra note 35.

    [43] BLUEBOOK, Rule 17.3.1.

    [44] Land, supra note 27. Internet cites sometimes indicate that they are "under construction" as they continue to add information to their site.

    Paper Reformatted June 24, 1997



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