David J.S. Ziff, The Worst System of Citation Except for All the Others, 66 J. Legal Educ. 668 (2017), https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/faculty-articles/340
Journal of Legal Education
The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation
Now in its twentieth edition, The Bluebook continues to cast its shadow over the legal profession just as it has for almost 100 years, helping legal writers format their references to authorities in briefs, memoranda, opinions, and law review articles. Previous critiques have offered various theories for why, despite its problems, The Bluebook remains the standard for legal citation. Ivy League elitism, the first-mover advantage, and lawyers’ conservative preference for the status quo have all been offered to explain the seemingly inexplicable: If this system is so terrible, then why are we still stuck with it?
One potential answer to that question has remained largely unexplored by previous scholarship, because previous scholarship has accepted the question’s underlying premise. This essay challenges that premise by offering a novel explanation for The Bluebook’s continued existence: Perhaps The Bluebook survives because it’s not so terrible after all.Perhaps The Bluebook works quite well for the task it was designed to perform.
Part I begins with an examination of The Bluebook’s primary task: providing citation rules for student-run law journals. Previous authors have noted that The Bluebook’s rules provide the benefit of certainty that comes with clear answers to citation questions, even if obtaining that certainty takes a bit of work. Part I argues that, in the context of student-run law journals with dozens of editors collectively working on dozens of separate articles over a two-year period, this rule-based certainty also increases efficiency, even if individual editors initially waste time looking up picayune rules. Adopting a looser, standard-based system of citation might actually increase the time wasted by journal editors on footnote revisions.
Part II explains how The Bluebook’s two-part structure—the Whitepages for journal editors and the Bluepages for practitioners—allows flexibility for practitioners, if that’s what a practitioner wants. This selective flexibility allows The Bluebook to continue to serve lawyers even after they’ve left law school. Part II also addresses some practice-based criticisms of The Bluebook and explains how these criticisms both understate the benefits of The Bluebook’s rules and vastly overstate the benefits of alternative systems based on loose standards. Even The Bluebook’s harshest critics, such as Judge Richard Posner, rely on The Bluebook’s system of rules much more than they like to admit.
Part III then looks into the future, through the lens of The Bluebook’s newest competitor: The Indigo Book, a freely available, open-source expression of The Bluebook’s system of citation. As a static publication, The Indigo Book breaks no new ground. But as a continuing project, The Indigo Book might be revolutionary, since the project seeks to wrest control of legal citation from Ivy League law students and give it back to you, the people. What does this mean for The Bluebook and legal citation in the coming decade? Part III engages in wild speculation. Thanks to The Indigo Book, the law’s citation rules may become a free, open, and collaboratively edited system—much like Wikipedia. Part III concludes by suggesting that, also like Wikipedia, this new online system may have benefits, but it may also grow more complicated and labyrinthine than its student-created counterpart.