Identifying Case Law

Costs of the (Increasingly) Lengthy Path to U.S. Report Pagination by Peter W. Martin.

If you are not familiar with the U.S. Supreme Court, the thumbnail sketch is that the court publishes its opinions without official page numbers and they remain that way for years. When the final printed version appears, all the cases citing a case without official page numbers, have to be updated. Oh joy! 😉

Peter does a great job illustrating the costs of this approach.

From the post:

On May 17, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decided United States v. Comstock, holding that Congress had power under the Necessary and Proper Clause of the U.S. Constitution to authorize civil commitment of a mentally ill, sexually dangerous federal prisoner beyond his release date. (18 U.S.C. § 4248). Three and a half years later, the Court communicated the Comstock decision’s citation pagination with the shipment of the “preliminary print” of Part 1 of volume 560 of the United States Reports. That paperbound publication was logged into the Cornell Law Library on January 3 of this year. (According to the Court’s web site the final bound volume shouldn’t be expected for another year.) United States v. Comstock, appears in that volume at page 126, allowing the full case finally to be cited: United States v. Comstock, 560 U.S. 126 (2010) and specific portions of the majority, concurring and dissenting opinions to be cited by means of official page numbers.

This lag between opinion release and attachment of official volume and page numbers along the slow march to a final bound volume has grown in recent years, most likely as a result of tighter budgets at the Court and the Government Printing Office. Less than two years separated the end of the Court’s term in 2001 and our library’s receipt of the bound volume containing its last decisions. By 2006, five years later, the gap had widened to a full three years. Volume 554 containing the last decisions from the term ending in 2008 didn’t arrive until July 9 of last year. That amounts to nearly five years of delay.

If the printed volumes of the Court’s decisions served solely an archival function, this increasingly tardy path to print would warrant little concern or comment. But because the Court provides no means other than volume and page numbers to cite its decisions and their constituent parts, the increasing delays cast a widening ripple of costs on the federal judiciary, the services that distribute case law, and the many who need to cite it.

The nature of those costs can be illustrated using the Comstock case itself.

In addition to detailing the costs of delayed formal citation, Peter’s analysis is equally applicable to multiple gene names, for example, that precede any attempt at an official name.

What happens to all the literature that was published using the “interim” names?

Yes, we can map between them or create synonym tables, but who knows on what basis we created those tables or mappings?

Legal citations aren’t changing rapidly but the fact they are changing at all is fairly remarkable. Taken as lessons in the management of identifiers, it is a area to watch closely.

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