Procedural Law | What is With All These Citations?

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

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By now, you may have noticed that, in law, there is a constant focus on citations.  Citations are a shorthand way of telling the reader exactly where something comes from.  As you can imagine, knowing the source of a statement about the law can be very important.  Everyone who has ever been an English student understands the importance of quotation marks.  Quotation marks set off what a particular person said, and keeps comments made by the writer separate from the person the writer is quoting.  Quotation marks serve the same function in legal writing (as well as other types of academic writing).

Case law provides some of the best examples of the use of citations in legal writing.  After all, who knows legal writing better than judges do? To the novice reading cases for the first time, it can seem like there is a citation after every sentence, and that the law as complicated, ponderous, and slow.  Experienced legal readers will unconsciously remove all of this extra material, and the case will flow in their minds like any other prose.

In a common law country like the United States, these citations point back to ideas and legal precedents found in previously decided cases.  The system of citations provides important information as to why the judges ruled as they did. In practice, legal professionals must provide the authority for statements they make about a particular case.  No matter how brilliant a lawyer is, the courts are seldom interested in personal opinions. Nothing a lawyer says will hold sway in court if competent legal authority does not back it up. For these reasons, citations are critical in both the academic and applied aspects of the law.  

The most common form of a citation in legal writing is known as a citation sentence (this is opposed to the parenthetical system used in styles like that of the APA).  The usual form of a citation sentence is to provide information about a source, followed by a period. If more than two sources provide information about the preceding sentence, then a semicolon separates the sources.  The formatting is specific to the type of source being cited. All of this information can be very detailed and competency with it takes practice. The most common reference for citing legal materials is known as The Blue Book: A Uniform System of Citation.  Some basic conventions to remember are:

      • Italicize the name (style) of court cases
      • Always cite the official source of law
      • Use the accepted abbreviations for reporters, codes, and so forth
      • When quotations are drawn for a case, provide a pinpoint citation (the exact page number)
      • Always include the year that a case was decided in parentheses
Bluebook: Introductory Signals

Introductory signals are words or abbreviations that introduce a citation sentence in legal writing. As one would expect by the use of the word signal, their purpose is to alert the reader to something. Because they are used in a citation sentence (or parenthetically in the APA style), they are signaling something about the cited authority to the reader. The absence of any signal in a citation sentence suggests that the proposition offered in the document reflects precisely the rule of law, or merely identifies an authority cited in the text. Rule 1.2 of the Bluebook suggests the following signals (set off in italics) be used to indicate that the cited authority supports an assertion:

E.g. This signal tells the reader that there are many possible citations for the point being made, but it would be unnecessary or unproductive to list them all. The proffered citation is merely an example.

See. This signal directs the reader to that there is an inferential step between the proposition in the document and the cited authority. In other words, the citing authority does not mirror the proposition precisely, but follows logically from it. 

See also. This signal alerts the reader that the citation to follow offers additional authority to the proposition presented in the text.

Cf. this signal is used to indicate that the cited authority offers material that is analogous to the proposition in the text.

Compare. Shows that a comparison of authorities will help clarify a point made in the text. 

Contra. This signal is used to alert the reader that the cited source states the opposite of the proposition in the text. 

But see. This signals us used to alert the reader that the cited authority supports a position that is contrary to the proposition offered in the text.

See generally. This signal is used to indicate to the reader that the cited authority provides background information about the proposition presented in the text.


Modification History 

File Created:  08/04/2018 
Last Modified:  08/10/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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