Info-Policy-Notes - A newsletter available from

March 7, 1997

Public Domain Legal Citations

James Love (, 202.387.3030)
Consumer Project on Technology

The United States Judicial Conference has recently asked for public comments on the desirability of adopting a citation system for court opinions that is in the public domain. These comments can be filed with the Judicial Conference by electronic mail, by sending a note to:, and also by fax, at 202/273-1555. Comments should be addressed to ABA Citation Resolution, Suite 4-512, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, Washington, DC 20544. This is an extremely important opportunity, and we strongly urge people to send in comments by March 14, 1997.


At present, most federal court opinions are referred to by researchers, scholars, and practicing lawyers by the volume number and page numbers of paper bound court reporters sold by West Publishing. West Publishing claims that it "owns" the citations to the past 75 years of federal court opinions. West is pursuing these claims in two current copyright suits, and West is trying to get the United States government and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to approve special sui generis intellectual property laws which would strengthen its monopoly on legal citations. When West Publishing was bought by Thomson, a foreign owned publishing giant, Thomson agreed to license the citations to its competitors for fees which scale up to 9 cents per 1,000 characters per opinion, per year. (We do not believe these licenses are available to persons who make court opinions freely available on the Internet, in part because end users must sign licenses whose format is approved by Thomson/West.)

Many experts want the courts to adopt a public domain system for citation to court opinions. Experts believe this is needed both to end the West monopoly on court citations, and also to provide a more modern form of citation that would work better with the Internet and other forms of electronic publishing. In July 1996, The American Bar Association (ABA) made its recommendation for a public citation system. (http://www.ABANET.ORG/citation/home.html) The ABA system was essentially the same as systems recommended earlier by several state bar associations, as well as the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), the Department of Justice (DoJ), the American Association of Legal Publishers (made up of small high technology American legal publishers), and many citizen groups, including the Consumer Project on Technology.

The ABA asked courts to adopt a standard form of citation that would use the name of the case, the year, the court of jurisdiction, a sequential number for the opinion, and a paragraph number for the text. The main difference between this and the West Publishing citation would simply be that the court would number its opinions and the paragraphs within the opinion, so it would not have to rely upon the West volume and page numbers. This would permit the citation to be available the instant the opinion was released from the court, and to be used by any publisher, and in any format. For example, a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals case called Smith v. Jones, which was the 15th opinion issued by the court in 1996, might be cited as:

Smith v. Jones, 1996 5Cir 15, P. 18

Where P. 18 would indicate the citation referred to text from the 18th numbered paragraph.

The advantage of paragraph numbering is that it permits precise references to text, regardless of the publisher, the fonts used, or the format in which the information is displayed. This system is as old as the Bible, which itself uses a system of paragraph numbers. Paragraph numbering is also used by lawyers to identify the text in court pleadings. (The ABA committee was told that appeals court judges often number the paragraphs of draft opinions, which go through several versions.)

Members of the Federal Judiciary have asked the United States Judicial Conference to determine if they should implement the ABA recommendation. There is considerable resistance by some federal judges. As you may know, federal judges and their law clerks get unlimited access to Westlaw and Lexis at taxpayer expense, so the problems caused by the West monopoly on citations isn't always a pressing concern. Some judges think there is no need for change from the status quo, and that it would be a costly burden to number opinions and paragraphs. (I'm not making this up). Many judges also do not believe that anyone but lawyers are interested in reading court opinions.

The Judicial Conference has assigned this matter to a subcommittee of its Committee on Automation and Technology. The full committee is chaired by District Court Judge J. Owen Forrester, from Atlanta, GA. The subcommittee considering the issue of the ABA recommendation on public domain citations has seven members. They are:

Chair, Judge Edward Nottingham, District Court, CO
Judge Richard Nygaard 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, Erie, PA
Judge Paul Barbadaro, District Court, NH
Judge James Robertson, District Court for DC
Judge Roger Strand, District Court, Phoenix, AZ
Judge Franklin Waters, District Court, Fayetteville, AR
Magistrate Judge David Baker, Orlando, FL

The public is asked to comment on two questions:

  1. Whether the federal courts should adopt the form of official citation for court decisions recommended by the ABA resolution; and,
  2. The costs and benefits such a decision would have on the courts, the bar, and the public.

There will also be a public hearing on Thursday, April 3, 1997, in Washington, DC. As indicated above, send the comments by electronic mail to:, or by fax, at 202/273-1555, addressed to ABA Citation Resolution, Suite 4-512, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, Washington, DC 20544.

Talking points:

  1. Explain why it is inappropriate for a private entity (West Publishing) to "own" citations to government documents.
  2. Explain why ordinary citizens care about access to court opinions. What are the benefits to the public of having better access to legal information.
  3. Explain why a less monopolistic system for legal citations is likely to increase competition among legal publishers, and lower prices for consumers.
  4. Tell the subcommittee that the courts should do a better job making court information available to taxpayers, who are expected to obey the law.
  5. Tell the subcommittee that the courts should make all federal court opinions available on the Internet, with citations that will permit the public to uniquely identify and cite an opinion.
  6. Point out that federal, state, and local governments are huge consumers of high priced legal information, and that taxpayers will benefit from more competition for legal information.
  7. Explain why we benefit from better access to the text of court opinions: as citizens, students, researchers, business persons, etc.
Jamie Love(, 202.387.8030)
Consumer Project on Technology

The Federal Register Notice Follows:
[Federal Register: February 21, 1997 (Volume 62, Number 35)] [Notices]
[Page 8037-8038]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access


Committee on Automation and Technology; Notice of Opportunity To Comment and of Public Hearing on the ABA Citation Resolution

AGENCY: Judicial Conference of the United States, Committee on Automation and Technology.

ACTION: Notice of opportunity to comment and of public hearing on the ABA Citation Resolution.

In August 1996, the American Bar Association (ABA) approved a resolution made by its Special Committee on Citation Issues calling for state and federal courts to develop a standard citation system and recommending a format that could be used by state and federal courts. That resolution calls for courts to identify the citation on each decision at the time it is made available to the public. The ABA resolution is available through the Internet (http://www.ABANET.ORG/citation/home.html).

The federal judiciary seeks written public comments from judges, court personnel, the bar, and the public as to:

(1) Whether the federal courts should adopt the form of official citation for court decisions recommended by the ABA resolution; and,

(2) The costs and benefits such a decision would have on the courts, the bar, and the public.

In addition, a public hearing will be held on Thursday, April 3, beginning at 9 a.m. in the ceremonial courtroom of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, 3rd and Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. to address issues (1) and (2) stated above. Persons and organizations wishing to submit written comments should do so by sending them to: Appellate Court and Circuit Administration Division, ATTN: ABA Citation Resolution, Suite 4-512, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, Washington, D.C. 20544, Fax (202) 273-1555. Internet address:

Submission of written comments is preferred in electronic form and should be sent to in ASCII or WordPerfect 6.1or earlier versions. Alternatively, comments may be submitted in printed form through mail or facsimile. Persons without access to Internet may send a diskette. If printed comments are submitted, ten copies should be provided. Written comments are due no later than Friday, March 14, 1997. All comments received will be considered public information. Anyone submitting written comments who also is interested in testifying at the public hearing should submit a written request to the above address no later than Friday, march 14, 1997. Since it is expected that only a limited number of requests can be granted, the request should set forth reasons why an oral presentation in addition to written comments would be helpful to consideration of these issues. The request should identify the persons who wish to testify, the subjects to be addressed, the estimated amount of time desired (the maximum is 15 minutes), and the organization represented, phone number, and fax number. If possible, advance copies of testimony should be submitted.

Any questions about this notice may be directed to Joan Countryman at (202) 273-1543.

Dated: February 12, 1997.
Leonidas Ralph Mecham,
Director, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
[FR Doc. 97-4230 Filed 2-20-97; 8:45 am]

You can get additional information about this issue from Eleanor Lewis of the American Association of Legal Publishers (vocice: 301/652-3453; fax 301/652-2970, email AALP is a trade association of small legal publishers who compete against foreign owned legal publishing giants like Thomson and Reed-Elsevier (owner of Lexis).

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