Most everyone in the legal profession, at some point, has encountered a citation that is hard to decipher. Does the first day of law school ring a bell? Fortunately, we start to recognize at least a few citations as time goes on and we may even start to see a pattern. Then there are the ones that baffle even the best of us until we remember there are foreign and international legal citations out there. Maybe you think you are safe because you don't practice in those areas. Think again! Read a recent Supreme Court case, and there's an increasing chance that you will see a citation to foreign or international materials. There's been much debate about this topic thanks to a number of cases; maybe you've heard of Lawrence v. Texas. If you have some extra time on your hands, take a look at this 2003 USA Today article to get you started.
This post is not really about whether Supreme Court justices SHOULD cite to foreign law, but the fact that they DO cite to foreign law means that WE in the legal community need to know how to decipher and cite to these sources.
If you're thinking, "Supreme Court justices are citing to foreign law, so should I," check out Rex D. Glensy's article, Which Countries Count? Lawrence v. Texas and the Selection of Foreign Persuasive Authority before you choose to cite to an obscure country whose laws hold little weight on our legal system. You also may find that citing to these sources is more acceptable for some areas of law than others, so do your research before you rely on them.
Most people turn to The Bluebook to answer all their citation questions, so it's an obvious place to start when you have an unidentifiable citation. It covers 43 foreign jurisdictions with varying degrees of information on each country. I like the list of internet sources at the end of each entry. Note: Some of these sources do not have English translations. Its coverage of international sources is more comprehensive and spans 25 pages.
You can find the first edition of N.Y.U. Journal of International Law and Politics' Guide to Foreign and International Legal Citations (formerly the International Citation Manual) online. Aspen published the second edition of this publication. This may be a better place to start for foreign sources. It covers
45 jurisdictions and includes a country profile that may aid in
determining which countries will fare better as persuasive authorities.
It devotes less space to international sources.
A more likely scenario is that you have a citation you are trying to decipher. Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations allows you to search by abbreviation or title for "English language legal publications, from the British Isles, the Commonwealth and the United States, including those covering international and comparative law. A wide selection of major foreign language law publications is also included. Publications from over 295 jurisdictions are featured in the Index."
Do you have a citation to Canadian law that you are trying to figure out? McGill Law Journal's Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation has useful "general form" examples. I especially like the overview of these examples on the inside front cover.
These are just a few of the many manuals to guide you in citing foreign and international sources, but they should be more than enough to boost your confidence the next time you come face to face with one of these citations.