Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Commandment #5--Provide Accurate Citations to Authority

#5—Thou Shalt Provide Accurate Citations to Authority

I can tell you from my personal experience and the sentiments expressed by judges and other law clerks I’ve spoken to—Courts get really irritated when they are unable to locate authority cited by a party.

In discussing the necessity of providing accurate citations, I’m not talking about situations where a party represents that the authority stands for a proposition it doesn’t actually stand for—that was covered in Commandment #7. With this commandment, I’m talking about providing the court with the correct statute or case citation and providing pinpoint citations. I know this commandment seems nitpicky, and it is, but if you follow it, judges will greatly appreciate the effort—I promise.  

You should strive to provide citations that comply with The Bluebook, ALWD manual, or other citation authority used in your jurisdiction. Minor citation errors aren’t a big deal. The real problem arises, however, when the judge or the judge’s clerk cannot locate the case or statute you’ve cited, usually because you’ve transposed or omitted the reporter number, the page number, or the title, chapter, or section of the statute. The third edition of the Federal Reporter (F.3d) can easily become the second edition (F.2d), and 310 Ga. App. 223 (2011) can be turned into 301 Ga. App. 233 (2011).

The court may be familiar enough with the statute or case the party intended to cite to locate the correct authority quickly. However, if the party has cited an obscure statute or unfamiliar case, the court may have difficulty locating the applicable authority.

Even if you do make a citation error, as long as you’ve provided the court with the correct case name and jurisdiction info, the court probably won’t have too much trouble locating your authority. Westlaw and Lexis* both have a feature that enables a searcher to find a case by case name. But that’s not always easy, especially when the case name is a common one, like Smith v. Smith. Providing the correct citation is very important, so try to remember to double-check your cites before filing any brief.

And don't forget to provide pinpoint cites. Unless you are citing a case generally or citing a case as an example of some general legal proposition, you should include a pinpoint cite to let the court know the page number where the quote, proposition, or explanation appears.  And something many litigants may not realize: you should provide pinpoint cites even if you aren't quoting directly from the case but are simply summarizing a legal proposition. For example,

Courts interpret the Rule 9(b) pleading requirements strictly. Dorsey v. Portfolio Equities, Inc., 540 F.3d 333, 339 (5th Cir. 2008).  

Parties almost always cite cases for specific points, not general principles. In my experience, you probably need a pinpoint cite about 95 percent of the time. If you’re not sure, err on the side of providing the pinpoint citation.

Remember—in persuasive legal writing, you goal is always to make it as easy as possible for the court to rule in your client’s favor. Make the judge’s job easier by providing accurate citations.

*A quick tip about citing unreported cases from Westlaw or Lexis: If you cite a case available on Westlaw or Lexis, include the case number (e.g., 4:05-CV-2049) and exact date of the opinion (e.g., May 21, 2007). Not all courts have access to both databases and, without this information, the court may have trouble locating the authority. The case number and opinion date are included in The Bluebook citation formula for unreported cases found in the Westlaw and Lexis databases.

Hancock v. Penn State Univ., No. 4:05-CV-2049, 2007 WL 1490481 (M.D. Pa. May 21, 2007).

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