The Next Generation of Legal Citations: A Survey of Internet Citations in the Opinions of the Washington Supreme Court and Washington Appellate Courts, 1999-2005

Article excerpt


During January 2007, a storm of controversy over Wikipedia use swept across the blogosphere. From a history department banning citations to Wikipedia in student papers, (1) to companies paying for updates to its eollaboratively written articles, (2) to the citation of those articles in federal court opinions, (3) Wikipedia was being discussed everywhere. In academia at least, the discussion over the appropriate use of the online encyclopedia seemed to overpower even the debate about whether the young quarterback Rex Grossman and the Chicago Bears would overcome the laser rocket arm of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI.

Some commentators denounced citing to Wikipedia because entries can be edited anonymously and multiple changes over time make it unstable. They also insisted that primary sources should be cited instead of encyclopedias no matter what the format. (4) Those supporting the use of Wikipedia articles cited studies showing its reliability of information and claimed that selective use of the website is acceptable. (5)

Controversy of this type is not new: Many similar issues were discussed when information first began appearing on the Internet, but many Internet sources are now widely accepted as reliable. In the legal world, citations to Internet resources have become increasingly apparent. Several surveys and studies on the use of citations to primary and secondary materials in court opinions have included sections on how judges cite to sources available on the Internet. (6) The New York Times has stated that "[m]ore than 100 judicial rulings have relied on Wikipedia, beginning in 2004." (7) Law reviews are also increasingly using citations to the Internet. (8) This should come as no surprise, for information is now often only available online and is much easier to access online than in paper. For example, many government documents once available only in print are now often available only in an electronic format on the issuing agency's website. (9)

As more legal research is conducted online, it is reasonable to conclude that there will be a corresponding increase in citations to the Internet by judges in their opinions. With the widespread public use of the Internet to access information along with the constant changes and impermanence of websites, citing to the Internet should be an issue of increasing concern to the legal community across the country. Appellate courts and appellate judges in the state of Washington are no exception, because while Wikipedia citations have only recently appeared in Washington court opinions, (10) citations to Internet sources have been around for several years.

This paper surveys the types of Internet sources the Washington state Supreme Court and Appellate Court justices are citing. The first section briefly discusses the methodology that was utilized to determine how many Internet citations the justices used in their opinions and what information was being cited. The findings of the study are then followed by a discussion of some of the major issues surrounding Internet citations in judicial opinions and an analysis of the survey results.


For the purposes of this study, the survey of court opinions is limited to Washington Supreme Court and Appellate Court decisions issued between January 1999 and December 2005. (11) Unpublished cases, which are readily available on Westlaw, were also included. (12) To determine the suitability of this topic for exploration, I began with a search on Westlaw using "http" and "www" as search terms and restricted the search to the Washington State Cases database. (13) I also did a sample search using the cases available on (14) Interestingly, my LegalWA results did have one additional case that was not produced in the Westlaw search. (15) Because a LegalWA search proved to be more problematic and time consuming than a Westlaw search, I decided to proceed with the results I obtained from Westlaw. …


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