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Source: AALL Universal Citation Guide (First Edition).

In his recent post, Fastcase CEO Ed Walters called on American states to tear down the copyright paywall for statutes. States that assert copyright over public laws limit their citizens' access to such laws and impede a free and educated society. Convincing states (and publishers) to surrender these claims, however, is going to take some time.

A parallel problem involves The Bluebook and the courts that endorse it as a citation authority. By requiring parties to cite to an official published version of a statutory code, the courts are effectively restricting participants in the legal research market. Nowhere is this more evident than in those states where the government has delegated the publishing of the official code to a private publisher, as is the situation in more than half of the states.  Thus, even if the state itself or another company, such as Justia, publishes the law online for free, a brief cannot cite to these versions of the code.

To remedy this problem, we (and others) propose applying a system of vendor neutral (universal) citation to all primary legal source material, starting with the state codes. Assigning a universal, uniform identifier for state codes will make them easier to find, use, and cite. While we do not expect an immediate endorsement from The Bluebook, we hope that once these citations find their way into the stream of information, people will use them and states will take notice. We think it’s time to bring disruptive technology to bear on the legal information industry.

About Universal Citation


"Universal citation" refers to a non-proprietary legal citation that is applied the instant a document is created. "Universal citation" is also called a "vendor-neutral," "media-neutral," or "public domain" citation. Universal citation has been adopted by sixteen U.S. states in order to cite caselaw, but universal citation has not yet been applied to statutes by any state. A review of universal citation processes for caselaw is helpful in understanding how we may apply universal citation to statutes.

Briefly, a case follows this process before appearing as an official reported decision:

When issuing a written decision, a court first releases a draft called a slip opinion, which is often posted on the court’s Website. Private publishers then republish the slip opinion in various legal databases. A party can cite the slip opinion using a variety of citation formats, depending on the database.

Afterwards, the court transmits the slip opinion to the jurisdiction's Reporter of Decisions, who may be a member of the judicial system or a private company. The Reporter edits the opinions, and then collects and reprints them in a bound volume with a citation. To cite a particular page within a case, which is also referred to as pinpoint citation, a party cites the case name, the publication, the volume, and the specific page number that contains the cited content.

Before the advent of electronic publishing, these books were the primary source for legal research. And, while publishers still print cases in book format, the majority of users read the cases in digital form. However, opinions in online database lack physical pages. To address this, online publishers insert page numbers into the digital version of an opinion to correspond to page breaks in the print version. Thus, the pinpoint citation (or star pagination) for an opinion, whether in print or online, is the same.

Under most court rules, and Bluebook guidance, once the official opinion is published, the Reporter citation must be used (see Bluebook Rule 10.3.1).

The decisions are published by a private company, usually Thomson West, and anyone wanting to read them must license the material from the company. Thus, if you want to cite to judicial law, you must pay to access the Reporter’s opinions. (Public law libraries offer books and database access, but readers must visit the physical library to use their resources. Google Scholar also provides free access to official cases online, but they must pay to obtain and license the opinions. In other words, Google, not the end user, is paying for the access.)

Universal citation bypasses the private publisher, and allows courts to create official opinions immediately. Under this system, judges assign a citation to the case when they release it. They insert paragraph numbers into the body of the opinion to allow pinpoint citation. This way, the case is instantly citeable. There is no intermediary lag time between slip and official opinion where different publishers cite the case differently, and there is no need to license proprietary databases in order to read and cite the work. In the jurisdictions that have adopted this system, the court’s opinion is the final, official version. Private publishers may republish and add their own parallel citations, but in most jurisdictions the court does not require citation to private publishers' versions. (However, Louisiana and Montana require parallel citation to the regional reporter.)

The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) developed the initial standards for vendor neutral citation formats. AALL published the Universal Citation Guide in 1999, and released an updated edition in 2004. The Bluebook adopted a similar scheme in Rule 10.3.3 - Public Domain Format. Under this format, a universal citation should include the following:

  • Year of decision
  • State’s 2-letter postal code
  • Court name abbreviation
  • Sequential number of the decision
  • “U” for unpublished cases
  • Pinpoint citation should reference the paragraph number, instead of the page number

The majority of states employing universal citation follow the AALL/Bluebook standard, but a few have adopted their own styles. (Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Ohio employ universal citation but use a different format than the AALL/Bluebook recommendation.)

Most states that use universal citation adopted it in the 1990s. Cornell Law Professor Peter Martin details these events in his article Neutral Citation, Court Websites, and Access to Authoritative Caselaw. Professor Ian Gallacher of Albany Law School has also written about the history of this movement in Cite Unseen: How Neutral Citation and Americas Law Schools Can Cure Our Strange Devotion to Bibliographical Orthodoxy and the Constriction of Open and Equal Access to the Law. To date, 16 states assign universal citations to their highest court opinions. (To date, Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming have adopted universal citation for caselaw.)  Illinois is the most recent state to adopt the measure (in June 2011), and the concept has been gaining traction in the legal blogosphere. John Joergensen at Rutgers-Camden School of Law started a cooperative effort called UniversalCitation.org this summer.

Universal Citation and State Codes

Applying universal citation to state statutes can provide the same benefits as to caselaw, making statutes easier to find and cite, and improving access. While all states publish some form of their laws online for the public, as Ed has noted, these versions of state laws are often burdened by copyright and licensing restrictions. With these restrictions in place, users are not free to reuse, remix, or republish law, resulting in stifled innovation and external costs associated with using poorly designed Websites that take longer to search.

Though the AALL provides guidance on universal citation for statutes, no state has adopted it. The Bluebook does not specifically reference universal forms of citations for statutes and generally requires citation to official code compilations. There are exceptions for the digital version of the official code, parallel citations to other sources, and the use of unofficial sources where they are the only available source. (Bluebook Rule 12 provides for citation to statutes, generally. The Bluebook addresses Internet sources in Rule 18.)

The AALL’s Universal Citation Guide provides a schema for citing statutes in a neutral format. Rules 305-307 lay out standardized code designations, numbering, and dating rules, and each state has a full description in the Appendices. Basically, the format uses the state postal code, abbreviations for the name of the statutes (Consolidated, Revised, etc.), and a date.

As a result, the universal citations look similar to the official citations.

The AALL universal citation uses a name abbreviation for the state name and the name of the statute compilation. AALL’s format does not use periods in the abbreviations. It also uses a different convention for the year. The Guide’s recommendation is to date the code by a “legislative event,” to make the date more precise. Using “current through” dating provides a timestamp for the version of the code being used. This approach is less ambiguous than listing simply the year.

States like California and Texas have very large, segmented code systems with more complicated official citation schemes. The AALL mirrors these with the universal version, giving each subject matter code an abbreviation similar to the one used by The Bluebook.

Universal citation does not designate whether the code version is annotated, and of course it does not mention the publisher of the source.

Experimenting with Universal Citation

Justia is now applying the AALL’s universal citation to the code compilations on our site. We add this citation to the most granular instance of the code citation, along with a statement identifying and explaining it. So far, we’ve added citations to the state codes of Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, and South Dakota.

We started with Hawaii. The official citation and the universal citation are fairly similar:

Official: Haw. Rev. Stat. § 5-9 (2010)
Universal: HI Rev Stat § x-x (2010 Reg Sess)

This is how the code looks on the Hawaii Legislature’s site:

This is how the code section looks on Justia. We added the citation right above the text of the statute.

On our site, the full citation is visible, so readers can quickly identify and cite to it.  The “What’s This?” link next to the citation explains the universal citation.

We used the Legislature’s site to determine the date.

We also added the universal citation to the title tags. This allows search engine users to see the universal citation in their search results. It makes the search results more readable, because the text of the statute name appears next to the citation. For example, compare a search for "Haw Rev Stat 5-9"

with "HI Rev Stat 5-9":

With the search results for the universal citation (properly tagged), more information about that citation is presented. This helps the user quickly identify and digest the best search results.

We hope to accomplish three objectives by attaching universal citations to our codes. First, we want to give people an easy way to cite the code without having to look at proprietary publications. Not all citation goes into legal briefs or other documents that require formal citation to “official” sources listed by The Bluebook. The AALL universal citation scheme is easy to read and understand, and uses familiar abbreviations (like postal codes). Providing a citation right on the page of the code section will help people talk about, use, and cite to code sections without having to access “official” sources behind a paywall.

Second, we hope to demonstrate that universal citation can be applied in an easy and straightforward manner. The AALL has already developed a rigorous standard for universal citation; we are happy to use it and not reinvent the wheel. Legal folks here at Justia researched the AALL citation and the proper year/date information, and programmers applied the citation to the corpus. Anyone can do this, including the states.

Third, we want to encourage the adoption and widespread use of vendor-neutral citation schemes. There’s been a lot of talk about vendor-neutral citation for caselaw, and we are excited by efforts like UniversalCitation.org. Applying these principles to state codes will help get universal citation into the stream of legal information online. Just seeing the citation and the “What’s This?” page next to it will introduce readers to the concept. The more people use universal citations for state statutes, the more states will be forced to examine their reliance on third party publishers as the “official” source.

Next Steps

We plan to apply the universal citation to all of the codes in our corpus, but we have encountered some obstacles to achieving this for all 50 states. First, some of the codes are quite large and difficult to parse. Ari Hershowitz has documented his efforts to convert the California code into usable HTML. States like California, Texas, and New York will be more labor intensive. Second, the currency, or timestamp, is not always readily apparent on the state code site. With Idaho, I had to make a call to the Legislative Office to find out exactly when they last updated the code.

Source: AALL Universal Citation Guide (First Edition).

The third, and perhaps most troubling, issue is the "unofficial" status of the online state code repositories. With the exception of a few states (see Colorado), the codes hosted on the states' own Websites are papered over with disclaimers about their authenticity. While I understand the preference for “official” sources when citing a code, there seems to be no good reason why the official statutes of any state are not available online, for free, for everyone. These are the laws we must obey and to which we are held accountable. Does the public really deserve something less than official version? The states are passing the buck by disclaiming all responsibility for publishing their own laws, and relying on third-party publishers, which charge taxpayers to view the laws that the taxpayers paid for. I hope that as we apply a universal citation to our state statutes, the law will become more usable for the public. By taking disruptive action and applying these rules to our large corpus of data, we hope that more people will see the statutes and cite using universal principles, and that the states will take notice.

We have assigned a universal citation to the first few states as a proof of concept. We will also be sharing our efforts by supplying copies of the code with the universal citations included for bulk download at public.resource.org. As we move forward with the remaining 46 states, we would love your input.  Comment here or contact me directly with your thoughts.

Peace and Onward.

[Editor's Note: For other VoxPopuLII posts on universal citation and the status of content in legal repositories, see Ivan Mokanov's post on the Canadian neutral citation standard, and John Joergensen's post on authentication of digital legal repositories.]

Courtney Minick is an attorney and product manager at Justia, where she works on free law and open access initiatives. She can be found pushing her agenda at the Justia Law, Technology, and Legal Marketing Blog and on Twitter: @caminick.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-Chief is Robert Richards, to whom queries should be directed. The statements above are not legal advice or legal representation. If you require legal advice, consult a lawyer. Find a lawyer in the Cornell LII Lawyer Directory.

Law BooksQuestion: Is there a good reason why judges should not be blogging their opinions?

Follow my thinking here.

I, like many librarians, love books. By that I mean I love physical books. I love the feel of paper in my hand. I love the smell of books. When I attended library school, there was no doubt in my mind that I would work in a place surrounded by shelf after shelf of beautiful books. I was confident that I would be able to transfer that love of books to a new generation.

That’s not how things turned out. Without recounting exactly how I got here, I should say that I am a technology librarian, and have been since even before I graduated library school. Technology is where I found my calling, and where libraries seem to need the most help. As I delve deeper into the world of library technology, particularly in the academic setting, I am increasingly forced to confront an uncomfortable reality: Print formats are inferior to electronic. And in some of my darker moments, I may even go so far as to echo the comments of Jeff Jarvis in his book “What Would Google Do” when he writes: “print sucks.”

On page 71, talking about the burden of physical “stuff,” Jarvis writes:

“It’s expensive to produce content for print, expensive to manufacture, and expensive to deliver. Print limits your space and your ability to give readers all they want. It restricts your timing and the ability to keep readers up-to-the-minute. Print is already stale when it’s fresh. It is one-size-fits-all and can’t be adapted to the needs of each customer. It comes with no ability to click for more. It can’t be searched or forwarded. It has no archive. It kills trees. It uses energy. And you really should recycle it, though that’s just a pain. Print sucks. Stuff sucks.”

In this paragraph, Jarvis may as well have been talking about the current state of online legal information. Although we may not have figured out the magic bullets of authenticity and preservation, the fact remains that print is a burden. In many cases, it is a burden to our governments, and our libraries.

There are good reasons to proceed cautiously towards online legal information. However, the most significant barriers to accepting new modes of publishing official legal information online, like judges' blogging opinions, may be cultural and political. In the end, law librarians and other legal professionals can’t allow our own nostalgia and habit to stand in the way of changes that can, should, and must happen.

AALL Working Groups

As many readers may know, the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) began forming state working groups earlier this year. The purpose of those working groups was to “help AALL ensure access to electronic legal information in your state.” This is certainly a worthwhile goal, and one I obviously support. But the PDF document online, calling for formation of these working groups, sends a mixed message.

The very first duty of each working group is to “take action to oppose any plan in your state to eliminate an official print legal resource in favor of online-only unless the electronic version is digitally authenticated and will be preserved for permanent public access, or to charge fees to access legal information electronically. This is an increasingly common problem as states respond to severe budget cuts.”

Perhaps it’s just the phrasing of the document that bothered me. Rather than even providing guidance to states planning to eliminate print legal resources, AALL has set as its default position the opposition to any such plan.

In fairness, I note that the document hints that online-only legal resources might be acceptable if states don’t charge for them, or if such resources meet the rather complex standards laid out in the Association of Reporters of Judicial Decisions' Statement of Principles.

The Association of Reporters of Judicial Decisions (ARJD) published Statement of Principles: “Official” On-Line Documents in February 2007, revised in May 2008. Most tellingly, in Principle 3 of the Statement they write: “Print publication, because of its reliability, is the preferred medium for government documents at present."

Later in the document we find out why print is so reliable. Talking about electronic versions, the ARJD says they should not be considered official unless they are “permanent in that they are impervious to corruption by natural disaster, technological obsolescence, and similar factors and their digitized form can be readily translated into each successive electronic medium used to publish them.”

Without question, electronic material must be able to survive a natural disaster. The practice of storing information on a single server or keeping all backups in the same facility could be problematic. But emerging trends and best practices could help safeguard against these problems. In addition, programs like LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) can help alleviate some of these concerns by making sure many copies of each digital item exist at multiple geographic locations.

Also, digital format obsolescence has largely been overstated. PDF documents are not going anywhere anytime soon. Even conservative estimates establish PDF as a reliable format for the foreseeable future.

HTML may be no different. Consider that the very first Web document, Links and Anchors, is almost valid HTML5. Nearly 20 years later, that document is compatible with modern Web browsers.

BookOn the other side of the equation, is print impervious to natural disaster, or even technological obsolescence? Of course not. At Yale, with our rare books library and large historical collection, I have witnessed first hand the damage time can do to a physical book. Even more importantly, books in the last hundred years have been published so cheaply they may fall apart even sooner than books published centuries ago.

Print and Electronic Costs

The reality is that moving to online-only legal information is a good thing for everyone involved in producing and consuming such information. The burden of print is not limited to the costs forced upon states that produce it; that burden is also borne by libraries and citizens who consume it.

As mentioned above respecting the AALL working group document, many states are already looking at going online-only to cut costs, and why shouldn’t they? With current budget situations across the country being what they are, printing costs being particularly high, and electronic publishing costs being so low, of course states are looking at saving money by ending needless printing.

But libraries would also benefit from the cost savings of governments' moving to electronic formats. Not only do libraries currently have to subsidize printing costs by paying for the “official” print copies of legal materials; libraries also have to pay for the shelf space, as well as manpower to process incoming material and place it on the shelf, and may also have to pay additional costs for preserving the physical material. Not to mention the fact that we may pay for additional services that furnish access to the exact same material in an electronic format.

The costs involved in dealing with print legal resources are well known to most librarians. So why aren’t we clamoring for governments to publish online-only legal information?

Officialness, Authenticity, Preservation, and Citeability

Of course there are genuine concerns about online-only legal information. The big sticking points seem to be (in no particular order) officialness, authenticity, preservation, and citeability. Each issue is worthy of, and has been the subject of, much discussion.

Officiality may be in some ways the easiest and most difficult hurdle for online-only legal information to leap. To make an online version of legal material official, an appropriate authoritative body need only declare that version “official.” The task seems simple enough.

The more difficult part may be political. With organizations like AALL and ARJD currently opposing online-only options, that action may be politically difficult. Persuading lawyers, judges, and legislatures to approve such a declaration could be even more difficult. Can you imagine a bill, regulation, or some other action making a blog the “official” outlet for a particular court’s opinions?

The question of authenticity is more difficult to deal with from a technological perspective, although there has been interesting work done with respect to PDFs, electronic signatures, and public and private keys. The Government Printing Office (GPO) has done a great job leading the way in the area of authenticity: http://www.gpoaccess.gov/authentication/. The new Legislation.gov.uk site unveiled recently has taken a different approach from the GPO's. As John Sheridan has written in an earlier post, at the moment The U.K. National Archives are not taking any steps towards authenticating the information on the Legislation.gov.uk site, but they recognize the need to address the issue at some point. John Joergensen at Rutgers-Camden has taken yet another approach. And Claire Germain, in a recent paper about authentication practices respecting international legal information (pdf), states that those practices vary throughout the world. Thus the prickly question of authenticating online legal information is an issue that’s not going away any time soon.

AALL and ARJD have made a big deal about preservation of online legal information, an issue that's important for librarians, too. Unfortunately, this is another area where no good answer exists to guide us. As Sarah Rhodes wrote earlier this year, "our current digital preservation strategies and systems are imperfect – and they most likely will never be perfected."

The Library of Congress National Digital Information Infrastructure & Preservation Program (NDIIPP) has some helpful resources. The Legal Information Preservation Alliance (LIPA) also provides some good guidance in this area. However, many librarians are still reluctant to accept that digital preservation practices may enable us to end our reliance on print.

A similar reluctance can be seen in resistance to the Durham Statement, which -- though directed at law reviews -- also says something about other kinds of online legal information. Most notably, Margaret Leary of the University of Michigan chose not to sign the Durham Statement, and discussed her decision to continue to rely on print at a recent AALL program. In a listserv posting quoted in Richard Danner's recent paper, Ms. Leary asserted: "I do not agree with the call to stop publishing in print, nor do I think we have now or will have in the foreseeable future the requisite 'stable, open, digital formats'." Similarly, Richard Leiter explains that he signed the Durham Statement with an asterisk because of the statement's call for an end to the printing of law reviews.

What constitutes 'stable, open, digital formats' for the purposes of satisfying some librarians is unclear. As I mentioned earlier, a number of digital formats currently fit this description. This makes me think that there's something else going on here, a resistance to abandoning print for other reasons.

Citeability also becomes an issue as print legal information disappears. If there is no print reporter volume in which an opinion is issued, then how would one cite to an opinion (setting aside for a moment Lexis and Westlaw citations)?

However, efforts towards implementing “medium-neutral legal citation formats” have already been made. According to Ivan Mokanov's recent VoxPopuLII post, most citations in Canada are of a neutral format. In the United States, LegisLink.org has made an effort to improve online citations, as Joe Carmel describes in his recent post. Work on URN:LEX and other standards has resulted in some progress towards dealing with the citeability issue. Organizations like the AALL Electronic Legal Information Access & Citation Committee also deserve credit for taking this on. [Editor's Note: Those organizations have produced universal citation standards -- such as the AALL Universal Citation Guide -- which have been adopted by a number of U.S. jurisdictions.] Even The Bluebook supports alternative citation formats. For example, rule 10.3.3, “Public Domain Format,” specifies how to cite to a public domain or “medium-neutral format.” The Bluebook even goes so far as to allow citation in a jurisdiction’s specified format.

But despite all this work, nothing has yet stuck.

The Next Step

One thing you’ll notice respecting all of these issues is that they are currently unsettled. While AALL and ARJD have both suggested that they would look favorably on online-only legal information if it were official, authenticated, and preserved (they do not mention citeability), there is no indication of when we will reach a level of achievement on these issues that would be satisfactory to these organizations. Can governments, libraries, and citizens afford to wait?

Asking states to continue to bear the burden of publishing material in print as they run out of funding, and libraries to bear the expense of preserving that print, is irresponsible. While we might not have all of the answers now, we certainly have enough to move forward in an intelligent manner.

The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) has been working on an Authentication and Preservation of State Electronic Legal Materials Act. [Editor's Note: The Chair of the Act's Drafting Committee is Michele L. Timmons, the Revisor of Statutes for the State of Minnesota, and its Reporter is Professor Barbara Bintliff of the University of Texas School of Law.] According to the Study Committee's Report and Recommendations for the Act's Drafting Committee, the goal of the draft should be to "describ[e] minimum standards for the authentication and preservation of online state legal materials." This seems like an appropriate place to start.

Rather than setting unrealistic or vague expectations, the minimum standards provided by the draft act seem to allow some flexibility for how states could address some of these issues. As opposed to working towards a "stable and open digital format," which seems more a moving target than an attainable goal, the draft act sets forth an outline for how states can get started with publishing official and authentic online-only legal information. While far from finished, the draft act appears to be a step in the right direction.

What Is the Real Issue?

I think the real sticking point on this matter is mental or emotional. It comes from an uneasiness about how to deal with new methods of publishing legal information. For hundreds of years, legal information has been based in print. Even information available on the Lexis and Westlaw online services has its roots in print, if not full print versions of the same material. It’s as if the lack of a print or print-like version will cause librarians to lose the compass that helps us navigate the complex legal information landscape.

Of course, publishing legal information electronically brings its own challenges and costs for libraries. Electronic memory and space are not free, and setting up the IT infrastructure to consume, make available, and preserve digital materials can be costly. But in the long run, dealing with electronic material can and will be much easier and less costly for all involved, as well as giving greater access to legal information to the citizens who need it.

So Judges Blogging?Gavel

Question: Is there a good reason why judges should not be blogging their opinions?

Although he was the co-chair of the ARJD committee that produced the Statement of Principles, even Frank Wagner, the outgoing U.S. Supreme Court reporter of decisions, acknowledges that “budgetary constraints may eventually force most governmental units to abandon the printed word in favor of publishing their official materials exclusively online.” He also recognizes that the GPO’s work in this area may put an end to the printed U.S. Reports sooner than other “official publications.”

So were an appropriate authority to make them official, and some form of authentication were decided on, and methods of preservation and citation had been taken into account, would you feel comfortable with judges' blogging their opinions?

We have to get over our unease with new formats for publishing online legal information. We have to stop handcuffing governments and libraries by placing unrealistic and unattainable expectations on them for publishing online legal information. We have to prepare ourselves for a world where online is the only outlet for official legal information.

I still enjoy taking a book off the shelf and reading. I enjoy flipping through and browsing the pages. But nostalgia and habit are not valid strategies for libraries of the future.

jason_eisemanJason Eiseman is the Librarian for Emerging Technologies at Yale Law School. He has experience in academic and law firm libraries working with intranets, websites, and technology training.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor in chief is Robert Richards.