A vocal community of appellate lawyers on the Internet advocates replacing extended explanatory parentheticals required by Rules 5.3 and 5.4 of the Bluebook with a simpler parenthetical that simply says “(cleaned up).”
Jack Metzler, currently an attorney for the Federal Trade Commission, originated the idea and posted a draft of his proposal online. He found a receptive audience. On August 1, 2017, the Fifth Circuit went beyond mere reception and became the first federal court of appeals to adopt its use.
The inherent merits of the “(cleaned up)” proposal and its popularity with practitioners has convinced the editors of the New York University Annual Survey of American Law to incorporate the proposed rule into the journal’s style guide. The Annual Survey describes its mission as including the exploration of “contemporary legal developments in the United States from a practice-oriented perspective.” Practitioners have embraced the idea, and the journal wishes to evolve with them. Furthermore, the proposal has the additional benefit of engaging junior editors by allowing them to think critically about the citations they edit: a unique issue for law journals. Although every journal is different, we encourage other journals to adopt this proposal as well.
The Proposal Demonstrated
Consider the following example citation:
We have long said that “[a] court need not consider a party’s ‘conclusory and self-serving affidavit [as] . . . sufficient to overcome’ a motion for summary judgment.” Johnson v. X Brands, 850 F.3d 1111, 1112 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Smith v. Acme, Inc., 822 F.3d 304, 308–09 (9th Cir. 2017) (internal citation omitted)).
On its face, this citation appears to make the statement that a court does not have to consider a party’s conclusory and self-serving affidavits as a sufficient basis for overcoming a summary judgment motion. The citation is to a 2017 case called Johnson v. X Brands in the Ninth Circuit, and it contains the following additional information:
- The Johnson citation is not totally faithful: there was a capitalization change (the “a” became lowercase), an added word (“as”), and there were some words omitted before “sufficient.”
- The Johnson case quoted partially from a different 2017 Ninth Circuit case called Smith v. Acme; an internal citation was omitted somewhere in its quote.
If Metzler’s passage was itself being quoted (say, in a 2017 Ninth Circuit case called Sample v. Cite), an even longer quote would result:
This Court has “long said that ‘[a] court need not consider a party’s “conclusory and self-serving affidavit [as] . . . sufficient to overcome” a motion for summary judgment.’” Sample v. Cite, 900 F.3d 101, 103 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Johnson v. X Brands, 850 F.3d 1111, 1112 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Smith v. Acme, Inc., 822 F.3d 304, 308–09 (9th Cir. 2017) (internal citation omitted)) (alterations in original)).
Now, yet another parenthetical, “(alterations in original),” indicates that the quotation from Sample v. Cite, which contained all of those annoying brackets and ellipses, was in fact written with all of those annoying brackets and ellipses, and that those alterations were not added by the author quoting from Sample v. Cite.
Metzler’s proposed solution is to eliminate all of this the extraneous information with one parenthetical, as follows:
This Court has “long said that a court need not consider a party’s conclusory and self-serving affidavit as sufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment.” Sample v. Cite, 900 F.3d 101, 103 (9th Cir. 2017) (cleaned up).
This conveys the exact same legal information but with significantly less extraneous detail. The reader can focus on the substance of the legal proposition without distraction.
The previous section noted that all of the citations were from 2017 Ninth Circuit opinions. This matters because citations are not merely used to show some authority for a proposition, but also to communicate how persuasive that authority is. The uniformity in this example implies that the intermediate citations do not convey much additional information, since they all come from the same jurisdiction.
That will not always be the case. For example, a lawyer in a state trial court may cite a previous opinion of that court, which itself quotes from a United States Supreme Court case. In that scenario, it may make sense to keep both the trial court quote and the Supreme Court quote, to show that the court had followed Supreme Court precedent in the same manner previously. Metzler shows a variant of this in his last example in Part IV of his paper. In other words, “(cleaned up)” can and should be used flexibly. In some cases, it makes sense to retain intermediate citations, along with the traditional annotating parentheticals.
The editorial decisionmaking described above is no less important for academic writing than for court filings. Academics are just as impressed by the Supreme Court as (and much less interested in state courts than) practitioners. Journal editors, therefore, must determine what aspect of the citation is relevant, using both personal intuition and above-the-line context clues.
This leads to another benefit of the “(cleaned up)” concept, which is unique to law journals: junior editor engagement. Many professors of legal writing have expressed concern that law students learn legal citation too mechanically and “syntactically,” with insufficient focus on the communicative function of effective legal citations. Introducing “(cleaned up)” into the cite-and-source-checking process invites junior editors to think about their citations and participate in the editorial process in a more meaningful and substantive way.
“Legal citation is a core convention of practical legal writing in the United States.” It is time law journals take ownership of that fact and do something useful with it. The Annual Survey of American Law is proud to join the effort. We hope that by introducing “(cleaned up)” into our citations, our readers will enjoy clearer and more meaningful citations, while our junior editors gain practice crafting them.