The Bluebook and the Purpose of Citations

by Erik Adams

I don’t expect many of you to appreciate the subtle science and exact art that is potion-making. However, for those select few who possess the predisposition… I can teach you how to bewitch the mind and ensnare the senses. I can tell you how to bottle fame, brew glory, and even put a stopper in death. — Professor Snape

Image Retrieved from Pixabay

In my library we are frequently asked for the proper “Bluebook” form of citation for a document. My inner cataloger, a lover of rules and precise objective description, relishes these questions. But like Professor Snape at the first day of class at Hogwarts, I don’t expect attorneys to really appreciate the beauty of a well-formed citation. Talk to any law firm librarian, and they will have a story that follows this pattern: an attorney has decided to cite to an unusual document. The unusual document hasn’t been picked up by Lexis or Westlaw, and so doesn’t have a “LEXIS” or “WL” citation. The attorney has made an attempt to cite properly but would like the librarian to take a look.

To be sure, the rules of proper citation laid out in The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation can be daunting. It has more than 500 pages (as of the 20th edition) of directives, exceptions, and lists of abbreviations, covering everything from deposition transcripts to web pages. It can be difficult for experienced law librarians. But there are a couple of issues I’ve encountered recently that I think could be addressed in attorney instruction that would improve the quality of citations.

First, attorneys seem to forget what the purpose of a citation is. The Bluebook makes this pretty clear, right on page 1: “The central function of a legal citation is to allow the reader to efficiently locate the cited source.” Any citation that omits critical information or garbles it up has failed in this simple goal.

I was recently tasked with generating a proper citation for a trial court order. According to The Bluebook, for a trial court order, you provide the name of the document, the name of the case, and then other identifying information like the court and docket number. My attorney was confused by this; he was used to citing reported cases where you put the case name first, then identifying information; the title of the document itself is generally omitted. I had to explain to him that just providing the name of the litigants would be ambiguous and ultimately would not be enough information to guide someone else (like a judge) to a document.

I think this is an opportunity for an attorney to try out a little role playing. If they encountered their citation, without any context, would they be able to connect that citation to the correct document? If the answer is no, they have failed.

The second issue that stands out is a lack of appreciation for the difference between an appellate decision and a trial court order. I don’t mean that attorneys don’t understand the procedural differences; most attorneys seem to have a grasp of basic civics. I mean that because case reporters make it appear that every appellate decision has only one document worth citing in a case, there will be only one order in a trial court worth citing, and simply citing to “the trial court order” will be sufficient. Often it is not.

To deal with this situation, I generally like to send the attorney the full trial court docket, and make obvious the problem by asking “do you mean the order at docket entry #78? Or the one at docket entry #123?”

On the other hand, when an attorney comes to me with a baffling citation, and I’m able to find the document, in spite of incomplete, garbled, or incorrect information, I look like a wizard. Which is as close to bewitching the mind and ensnaring the senses that a law librarian can get.

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