In 1999, the American Association of Law Libraries published the Universal Citation Guide, which contains recommendations for universal citation rules for judicial decisions, statutes and administrative regulations. One major goal of the guide is to create a consistent citation system for both print and electronically published sources of law, and which does not therefore depend upon the particular pagination of the publication containing the document in order to provide accurate pinpoint citations.

Five elements would comprise the citation of a judicial decision: case name, year, court, opinion number, paragraph number. Thus, a typical case might be cited as Winberry v. Salisbury, 1950 NJ 31, ¶24, rather than the current Winberry v. Salisbury, 5 N.J. 240, 255, 74 A.2d 406 414 (1950) (“rule-making power of the Supreme Court is not subject to overriding legislation”). The advantage of the system is that the proper citation is not dependent upon the source of publication, and would remain consistent regardless of whether the citer procured the case from a printed reporter volume, a website or a computerized legal information retrieval system.

A few jurisdictions, such as Wisconsin, have adopted the Universal Citation Guide, but it has not yet met with universal acceptance. We think it is time the New Jersey judiciary considers steps that would make use of the Universal Citation Guide at least a long-term option in practice before the courts.

This is not merely a matter of arcane interest to legal bibliographers; it can affect the operating costs of law practice and the free flow of legal information. The cost of law libraries and legal information is not an insignificant portion of the cost of private practice. It is well-known that one commercial provider publishes the bulk of printed case reporters in the United States, and there are a relatively few number of providers of computerized legal research. Yet case decisions and statutes are now widely available at no cost on the Internet. (New Jersey court opinions, for instance, are available for free to all on the Rutgers Law School site.)

At the moment, however, these free sources are not readily usable in briefs or other legal documents, since proper identification of a case currently requires a volume and page number from a commercial publisher. Although the courts have ruled that pagination cannot be copyrighted, and the text of government works are themselves in the public domain, this still gives the print publisher an upper hand in marketing its products, and also inhibits citation of very recent decisions that have not yet been included in a paginated reporter.

The cooperation of the relevant jurisdictions would be required in order to provide for the assignment of a sequential opinion number to each opinion released by a particular court, and formatting of text such that numbers were inserted for each paragraph. We hope the Judiciary will give serious consideration to adopting these practices at some point in the future. Liberating the citation of sources of law from the constraints of being tied to a particular medium of publication would be of economic benefit to the legal profession.