Tuesday, June 28, 2022
A recurring discussion on #AppellateTwitter and #LegalWriting Twitter is the importance (or lack thereof) of proper citation format. A recent post said that time spent learning to cite properly was not time well spent. I don’t take the author of that post to mean that citations are unimportant, but the view expresses a writer-centric view of citations rather than a reader-centric view. As writers, and particularly as appellate advocates, we must take a reader-centric view of writing. So, let me explain why I think that time spent learning to cite properly is time well spent.
First, and most obviously, your reader needs to be able to easily find what you’re citing. Judges and their law clerks are busy people. Why make it more difficult for the people who you are trying to persuade to find your source? You must do the work so that they don’t have to.
Next, as Professor Alexa Chew explains in Citation Literacy, citations provide the law-trained reader with important information about the weight of the cited authority. Is it binding or only persuasive? Is it a recent case or well-settled law? Is what is being cited from a concurring or dissenting opinion? All of those things matter to the reader. If you omit part of a citation, or worse, incorrectly cite a source, you’re depriving your reader of important information.
Finally, and as Professor Tracy L. M. Norton pointed out in a post responding to the original Tweet, judges and law clerks use adherence to proper citation format as a proxy for your diligence and attention to detail. I know this to be true from my experience as a law clerk and from talking to other law clerks and to judges. A writer who doesn’t take the time to put citations into proper format is often assumed to have neglected other matters in their writing. Because let’s face it, it doesn’t take much effort to format most citations properly. The answers are right there in the citation manual. You just have to spend some time looking them up.
That said, I don’t mean that you are expected to properly format every part of every citation. It won’t matter if the comma is italicized when it shouldn’t be. What I’m suggesting is that it’s important to do your best to properly format citations so that your reader will know that you pay attention to detail. Doing so will reflect well on you and your work.
Oh, and one practical tip. Don’t blindly rely on the “copy with reference” feature of your favorite online legal research platform. The citations produced by those features are not always correct. For example, the Supreme Court of Ohio has its own citation manual. The Ohio “copy with reference” feature of one legal research platform produces this citation for an Ohio trial court case: State v. Vita, 2015 WL 7069789 (Ohio Com.Pl.) The correct citation format is State v. Vita, Clermont C.P. No. 2015 CR 0071, 2015 WL 7069789 (Oct. 29, 2015).
 Alexa Z. Chew, Citation Literacy, 70 Ark. L. Rev. 869 (2018).
 Id. at 872-73.
 We’ll leave what “well-settled” law is for another day.