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Universal Citation: ABA

A South Carolina focused guide to discussions of citation reform, sometimes referred to as vendor neutral citation, medium neutral citation, uniform citation, or public domain citation.

American Bar Association (ABA) 2003 resolution

"The American Bar Association urges all American jurisdictions to participate in the creation of an American universal system of citation for case reports."

February 2003 resolution of ABA House of Delegates

1997 DOJ endorsement of ABA's recommended universal citation format

In 1997, the US Department of Justice urged the Judicial Conference of the United States Committee on Automation and Technology to adopt and implement the universal citation system the ABA had proposed in 1996, because:

"This system will enable more firms to develop products and services to answer the demands of case law users for timeliness, ease of use, reliability, and low cost.

These benefits in turn will make the judicial system more efficient and access to justice more affordable for all." ¶19 

ABA 1996 resolution

That the American Bar Association recommends that:

All jurisdictions adopt a system for official citation to case reports that is equally effective for printed case reports and for case reports electronically published. . . .

Until electronic publications of case reports become generally available to and commonly relied upon by courts and lawyers in the jurisdiction, the court should strongly encourage parallel citations. . . . The parallel citation should only be to the first page of the report and parallel pinpoint citations should not be required.

The standard form of citation, shown for a decision in a federal court of appeals, should be:
      Smith v. Jones, 1996 5Cir 15, ¶ 18, 22 F.3d 955."

August 1996 resolution of ABA House of Delegates

1996 report of ABA Special Committee on Citation Issues

What the Committee Report did:

The 1996 ABA Special Committee report:

  1. recommended a format for universal citation based on ease of use for both printed and electronic case law, and
  2. rebutted arguments against universal citation.

Recommended Format

In August 1996, the ABA adopted the committee's recommendation of a universal citation format to include:

  • the year, 
  • a designator of the court, preferably the 2-letter postal abbreviation,
  • the sequential number of the decision, and
  • a pinpoint paragraph number.

The committee recommended including a parallel citation to a case's first page only in a reporter in print; parallel citation to any later pinpoint page numbers in the printed reporter should no longer be required. This was a compromise between print and electronic, because printed case reporters were still getting significant use in 1996.

Example of a pinpoint citation, from Appendix A to the 1996 ABA Special Committee report:

Smith v. Jones, 1996 MD 15, ¶ 23, 696 A.2d 321.

Rebutted Arguments against Universal Citation

Argument 1. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it--it ain't broke."
Committee Response: The traditional citation system does not "afford a citation suited to the electronic publication of a court decision when it is first released to the public. Printed volume and page numbers are not available until weeks or months later. ... The universal citation system recommended by the committee is intended to meet this problem."
Argument 2. A universal citation is a "citation to nowhere" because it does not identify the source of the citation.
Committee Response: "In fact, the recommended citation system is the ultimate citation to somewhere, because it is a citation directly to the court's decision in the form in which it was released by the court."
Argument 3. "Formidable burdens will be imposed if courts are responsible for assigning sequential numbers to their decisions and numbering the paragraphs."
Committee Response: Since Louisiana, South Dakota, and many Canadian courts "have already implemented such systems, and major print publishers, including West Publishing Co., have begun printing reports using those systems, the committee concludes that no insurmountable burdens are involved."