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Setting new cites: Citations getting revamped for a digital era

North Carolina Reports, the official publication of the North Carolina Supreme Court opinions, has been around since 1778–a time when the musical Hamilton would have been a jaunty summary of breaking news. But its book-and-page number method for citing previous cases has remained almost unchanged since then, despite the fact that the old ways of doing things are increasingly ill-fit for purpose in a digital age.

So in an effort to drag its methods for case citations into the modern era, the North Carolina Supreme Court has announced that it will soon be adopting a new format for citations to help make opinions more accessible to attorneys and the public.

Beginning in January 2021, the citation for each opinion from the state’s appellate courts will include a year and universal opinion number, along with paragraph numbers to use when citing a quotation or specific holding, said Justice Anita Earls, who helped spearhead the change. These numbers will be native to the text of the opinion, allowing them to appear across a variety of mediums. 

The traditional book-and-page numbers will still appear alongside the new numbers, and the hardcopy North Carolina Reports and the North Carolina Court of Appeals Reports will remain the official record of the courts.

So under the new format, a Supreme Court case citation would read as State v. Smith, 375 N.C. 152, 2020-NCSC-45 ¶16. A Court of Appeals citation would read as State v. Smith, 255 N.C. App. 43, 2020-NCCOA-188 ¶23.

Those musty hardcopy court reporters that lawyers will remember so well from law school still make an elegant decoration for any law office, but most people today do their actual legal research online, where a crucial section of an opinion might not always appear on the same page number as in the hardcopy reports. That makes it difficult to uniformly refer to cases, said Sharon Gladwell, communications director for the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.

Moreover, the paragraph numbers will allow readers to more quickly and accurately identify source material in both electronic and hardcopy formats. The North Carolina Business Court already uses universal citations. 

“This change was needed because the book-and-page citations currently in use are ill-suited to electronic sources of legal opinions,” Earls said. “With increasing use of multiple websites to find appellate opinions, more and more people, both lawyers and members of the public, need a single citation that directs them to a case no matter which source they are using. It will benefit trial lawyers, appellate lawyers, and everyone who reads judicial opinions. This will also facilitate some of the changes the court is making to improve public access to its opinions on its website.”

The Judicial Branch’s technology committee, chaired by North Carolina Court of Appeals Chief Judge Linda McGee, has been studying a universal citation for a long time, Earls said, and began soliciting input from stakeholders in June.

Earls credited the North Carolina Bar Association’s appellate rules committee for forming a task force of attorneys from a wide range of practice areas to consider the proposal. It reviewed the formats used in 16 other states that have adopted a universal citation format and gathered comments from attorneys across the state and responded to questions about the change. 

“The feedback from North Carolina attorneys ranged from enthusiastic to cautiously optimistic to indifferent,” Earls said. “Everyone contacted in states that already use this format was positive about their experience and strongly recommended it.”

The new citation format is part of the Judicial Branch’s efforts to expand access to justice via the internet, Gladwell said. The state’s court system has just started $85 million technology project that will link the court systems in all 100 counties.

“We’re very excited about continuing our work to modernize our unified court system, from the trial courts to the appellate courts, by really leveraging technology,” Chief Justice Cheri Beasley said. “This new format will expand access to justice and improve accessibility in a digital age.”

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw

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