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To Cite is Human, to Find Law Divine: What Does a Legal Citation Look Like?


The following blog post got me to thinking that a legal citation lesson for non-attorneys might be a challenge worth attempting, though I surely won’t get it right the first time.

3 Geeks and a Law Blog: Bloomberg Law Gets Cited By A New Jersey Court… A First for “___ BL ___” (citing to United States v. Stuler, Civil Action No. 08-273, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43338, 2010 BL 99422 (W.D. Pa. May 4, 2010))

Onward to Legal Citation for the Novice:

Knowing how to “cite the law“, (e.g. Peter Martin’s Intro to Legal Citation), is a required skill for any legal researcher. (I wish it was a required skill for everyone who writes about the law, such as news reporters)

Writing a good citation is not as easy as it looks, especially since we now have multiple players in the legal publishing world.

But, it’s not rocket science either!

There can be forgiveness and leniency in the citation world (unless you are on law review) …

IF you follow these guidelines, which are not that different from the original Golden Rule (i.e. do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you):

Laura the Law Librarian Legal Citation Golden Rules:

1) Cite a law, not for yourself, but for the person who will have to find a copy of that exact same law.

2) Don’t count on a URL (aka web address or hyperlink) as a substitute for an accurate citation. With a good citation, a reader can always find the source, even if you don’t provide a URL or if the URL you provide breaks.


1) If you were a READER, could you find the law cited using the information you provided?

2) Citation is not done for the WRITER’s sake or for the citation’s sake (unless you are on law review); it is done so the READER can find a copy of the law being cited.

3) The READER has to know the law’s name, where it is published, the publication year of the law, and/or other attributes that make that citation unique.

4) There are a zillion places you can find the law and not all of them will get it right. There is no point citing to a source that isn’t accurate or official or that the READER won’t be able to locate or that is full of typos or hasn’t been edited or that is 5th generation rather than the, or an exact duplication of the, official law.

5) That READER may be a judge or opposing counsel and you surely don’t want them to find that you cited to an incomplete or inaccurate law, and especially not to law that may not be where you said it was going to be.

6) Citation style may change over time, but a good citation is forever:

a) In the “old” days, a case citation might look like this, with a nominate reporter cite:

Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137 (1803)

b) That simple cite is really all one needs, even though over time it will grow horns:

Like this, with the nominate reporter and the official reporter:

Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 5 U.S. 137 (1803)

c) Then this, the official plus unofficial(s) plus online:

5 U.S. 137, 5 U.S. 137; 2 L. Ed. 60; 2 Law. Ed. 135, 1803 U.S. LEXIS 352; 1803 WL 893 (U.S. Dist. Ct.), 1 Cranch 137

d) Now we have this new player in the (citable) legal research database family: Bloomberg Law, so, “brace yourself, Bridget,” a Marbury v. Madison citation might now look like this:

5 U.S. 137; 2 L. Ed. 60; 2 Law. Ed. 135, 1803 U.S. LEXIS 352; 1803 WL 893 (U.S. Dist. Ct.), 1 Cranch 137, 1803 BL [xxx]

(Disclaimer: I love the BlueBook (official), but don’t let it push me around. Citation is not for the timid at heart.)

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