Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Moving Past Page Numbers in Case Citations

Case citations are an important part of legal research. Citations let you uniquely identify and quickly
locate a particular opinion, and pin cites in a citation tell you where in the case the citing author found the referenced information. I depend on case citations every day and could not research efficiently and effectively without them.

The standard system of case citation is based on the print case reporters. The first number in a standard case citation refers to the volume of the case reporter. The second number refers to the page in the reporter volume where the case starts. The text in between identifies the reporter. For example, the citation for the famous criminal procedure opinion Miranda v. Arizona is 384 U.S. 436, which means that you can find the opinion starting on page 436 of volume 384 of the United States Reports. If the opinion is cited for a specific proposition, a pin cite will generally follow the page number (e.g. 384 U.S. 436, 475); the pin cite is the specific page in the reporter that the citing author is referencing.

Until recently, I had not given the standard system of case citations much thought. Then in February I read Peter Martin's blog post on Oklahoma's digital case law. The post is about Oklahoma's decision to adopt the digital versions of Oklahoma Supreme Court and Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals opinions published on the courts' website as the official versions. But what caught my attention was Martin's description of Oklahoma's case citation system.

Since 1998, Oklahoma courts have used their own system of citation independent of the print reporters. Each opinion issued by a given Oklahoma court is assigned a unique number. The case citation for that opinion is the year of the opinion, the name of the court, and the opinion's unique number. Within the opinion, each paragraph is numbered. The paragraphs numbers are used for the pin cites in the citation. So a citation to an Oklahoma case looks like this: Carney v. DirecTV Grp., Inc., 2014 OK Civ App 4, ¶9.

Now that I've seen an alternative to the standard case citation system, I wonder why we're still using the standard system. For a researcher working primarily with electronic documents, the standard reporter-based system is more difficult to use than a neutral system like Oklahoma's. Researchers need to be able to uniquely identify an opinion, but the unique identifier doesn't need to be tied to a physical object. If case research is done in print using the reporters, a citation that translates directly to an opinion's location in the reporters makes sense. In the electronic environment, it is an unnecessary complication.

One way the reporter-based citations cause an online researcher problems is through pin cites. Opinions in online databases are not displayed in pages corresponding to the print reporters. In Westlaw and Lexis, an opinion is displayed as one continuous page. If you print out an opinion from either system, it is broken into pages based on factors such as the paper and font sizes, not the page breaks in the print reporter. In order to allow for pin citing in reporter-based citations, Westlaw and Lexis use star pagination, meaning they insert starred page numbers into the text of the opinion to mark the start of each page of the print reporter. As a result, when you are researching case law, you have to locate pin cites by scanning the text for the embedded numbers marking the start and end of the pin-cited pages. This process is much slower and more tedious than scanning the beginnings of paragraphs for a number.


This example uses citations with a pin cite to information in paragraph 15 of the Oklahoma case Carney v. DirecTV Grp., Inc.  The first citation is in the standard reporter-based format. The second is in Oklahoma's neutral format.

1. Locating the pin cite for Carney v. DirecTV Grp., Inc., 316 P.3d 234, 239 (Okla. Civ. App. 2014):  

2. Locating the pin cite for Carney v. DirecTV Grp., Inc., 2014 OK Civ App 4, ¶15:

As you can see from the example, finding the pin cite for the Oklahoma citation is much easier.

The Oklahoma neutral citations have another advantage. The pin cites are more precise because they refer to paragraphs rather than whole pages. As a result, you can more reliably find the case language referenced in a case citation, which can help you follow the citing author's legal argument.

Oklahoma's system is not unique. As of 2012, 16 states used similar neutral citation systems. Neutral citation systems do more than help researchers handle pin cites. They play an important role in increasing public access to legal information. Peter Martin's article Neutral Citation, Court Web Sites, and Access to Authoritative Case Law discusses neutral citations and their impact on public access to the law in more detail. You can access his article through the Cornell Law Library Digital Commons.

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