Monday, February 3, 2014
Is link rot destroying stare decisis as we know it? That's a great question. If appellate courts are citing to internet sources and those sources are disappearing (link rot), often within just a few years, that does seem to pose a problem for future litigants and courts in determining the basis for the earlier courts' decision.
Arturo Torres, Associate Dean for Library and Information Technology and Professor of Law at the Texas Tech University School of Law, tackled this issue in: Is Link Rot Destroying Stare Decisis as We Know It? The Internet-Citation Practice of the Texas Appellate Courts, 13 J. App. Prac. & Process 269 (2012). The abstract:
In 1995 the first Internet-based citation was used in a federal court opinion. In 1996, a state appellate court followed suit; one month later, a member of the United States Supreme Court cited to the Internet; finally, in 1998 a Texas appellate court cited to the Internet in one of its opinions. In less than twenty years, it has become common to find appellate courts citing to Internet-based resources in opinions. Because of the current extent of Internet-citation practice varies by courts across jurisdictions, this paper will examine the Internet-citation practice of the Texas Appellate courts since 1998. Specifically, this study surveys the 1998 to 2011 published opinions of the Texas appellate courts and describes their Internet-citation practice.
While it appeared in the Journal's Fall 2012 issue, it just popped up on SSRN last month, which makes it current enough to discuss I suppose. The article does a careful and detailed empirical analysis of Texas Supreme and intermediate appellate courts' use of internet citations, citations to publicly available URLs, by court and overall. It then follows up on the internet citations used in these opinions and determines that, of internet citations used in the period between 1998 and 2011, nearly 40% of them no longer function. Table 10 on page 294 documents the link rot year over year, with citations in the late 90s and and early 2000s being mostly non-functional. In addition to documenting the link rot, the article also parses the data in a couple other interesting ways, showing us which courts are more likely to use internet citations and which domains (such as .com, .gov, etc.) are most cited.
In my estimation, the article doesn't really answer whether this admittedly frequent link rot does destroy stare decisis. To answer this question would require examining how the citations were being used and whether their absence affects our ability to understand and apply the cases. The answer may well be "yes," and its a problem that should be addressed regardless, but it may well be that a qualitative analysis of internet citation use proves the loss of these links to be insignificant. For example, if the appellate court gives the substance drawn from the source before citing it, it may often be the court's own adoption or application that matters, and not the availablility of the underlying source. For this or other reasons, link rot may have only a de minimis affect on stare decisis.
Finally, the author's data sorting methodology strikes me as a bit ironic, although this might just be my sensitivity to the issue of unpublished opinions in appellate courts. But given this article's concern with stare decisis, and its conclusion that link rot a priori erodes stare decisis, I was surprised that it completely omits unpublished decisions from the data set. It would seem to me that wholesale elimination of entire appellate opinions (especially in the large volume designated as unpublished) represents a more blatant affront to stare decisis.