Friday, November 30, 2012

Legal research and writing for the non-lawyer: Rules of citation

The easiest way to win a legal argument and to convince a judge to do what you want is to find a respected authority who has already decided and discussed the same legal issue favorably to you, in writing. For this reason, legal briefs and arguments are peppered with quotes and references from statutes, court decisions, regulations and law review articles, to name a few of the more important types of authority commonly used.

To be effective and verifiable, each of these references must be accompanied by a clear indication of the original source material, that is to say, a citation.

For example: Pierson v. Coffey, 706 S.W.2d 409, 413 (Ky.App. 1985)

This is a standard citation to a specific opinion of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, in the format preferred in the Kentucky court system. By looking at this citation, any lawyer or judge would immediately know where to find this court opinion to read it for herself. State court systems and the federal courts each have their own way of citing statutes, court cases and every other thing imaginable, and they have rules for proper citations. That is a lot of different rules.

Every lawyer and law student is familiar with The Bluebook, A Uniform System of Citation®, which is a collection of all the rules of all the different jurisdictions. The Bluebook is comprehensive, it is updated frequently, it is expensive, and it is unnecessary for self-help legal purposes. The Bluebook is for professional use.

Do-it-yourself law for non-lawyers does not need such comprehensive detail. You can often Google a state name along with "rules of legal citation" to find the information you need for your state online, for free. For example, Delaware's rules for citation are available online - Guide To the Delaware Rules of Legal Citation.

If you cannot find the rules for your state, there is an excellent beginner's substitute for the Bluebook offered by the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University. It is available online, Introduction to Basic Legal Citation, and it is also offered for download in three different e-book formats.