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What Is a (Cleaned Up) Case Citation?

You will notice some quotes from cases we cite here at Graham.Law contain the words (Cleaned Up) after the case citation. It means we have pledged to make legal text more user-friendly by adopting a proposal which:

gives legal writers the option to drop superfluous material like brackets, ellipses, quotation marks, internal citations, and footnote references from their quotations by using a single new parenthetical — (cleaned up) — to signal that such material has been removed and that none of it matters for either understanding the quotation or evaluating its weight.

Jack Metzler, Cleaning Up Quotations, 18 J. App. Prac. & Process 143 (2017)

That’s the bottom line up front – readability over strict adherence to archaic quoting rules which include unnecessary punctuation. Metzler is a government appellate lawyer in Washington, D.C., and it’s hard to argue with his logic that the reader doesn’t usually care that the court you are quoting was itself quoting from a prior decision.

Read on for the backstory of why case citations need improving.

Sad State Of Legal Writing

Legal writing is a mess. Judges’ opinions are better now than they were hundreds of years ago when they were written in a language (Latin) no one understood, but only marginally better, as so many legal opinions now are still indecipherable to the public at large. When I was a student at UCLA School of Law, two of my professors dispensed legal advice which I have never forgotten:

  • Plain & simple writing. The lesson from my Legal Research & Writing professor was that there is no reason to use a bunch of big words like “heretofore”, “aforementioned”, or convoluted phrases like “party of the first part”, etc.
  • Don’t use Latin. Our Criminal Procedure professor told the class that when we come across Latin phrases while reading legal opinions, ignore them, and we miss nothing. That’s true for about 99% of Latin phrases which lawyers love to use (admittedly, there are a few Latin phrases which themselves are more succinct than the English translation, or which are necessary as they have been defined by centuries of legal precedent).

Being smart should mean conveying complex thoughts in a way people can actually read, not showing off how pompous we are. Unfortunately, case citations have not caught up with this idea of simplicity.

Complex Case Citation Structure Is Illegible

The problem is that even if the legal source material followed all rules of simplicity with a simple holding, the next case citation quotes the original source, and changes it slightly to adapt it for the context of its case, or to add something useful to the original.

Case Citation, cleaned up legal citation.

Then, when the third case cites the second case citation, which itself cites the first, each layer of quotation and case citation will include ellipses to reflect a skipped citation or word, square brackets to denote an inserted word (substitution proper noun for pronoun) or changed capitalization, and the citation for each of the sources that came before it.

The result is akin to judges sitting in a circle playing the telephone game – except that instead of whispers, a legal opinion’s blind adherence to strict quotation rules ends up rendering case citations in each subsequent opinion progressively less decipherable to lawyers and laypeople alike as we get lost in a jumble of punctuation.

Legal Case Citation

Law school taught us to follow The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation. That’s a commercial source – similar open source citation rules are also available – I like Peter W. Martin’s Introduction to Basic Legal Citation from Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute.

Case citations need standardization to make it easy to refer to source materials (we are lawyers, after all – can’t have complete anarchy). But following archaic quotation rules (i.e. the Blue Book citation) creates the telephone game problem mentioned above. Cornell’s Introduction to Basic Legal Citation has a whole section dedicated to quotation rules, discussing the use of ellipses, square brackets, and so forth. But then in the last paragraph, they drop this tidbit:

An Emerging Variant Practice: Persuaded by a 2017 article arguing that quotations that contain quotations, especially those riddled with omissions and citations, need not be marked up in detail, increasing numbers of judges and lawyers have begun to streamline them. The practice is explained in a recent opinion. In it, the cited source for several quotations is followed by the parenthetical “(cleaned up).” A footnote elaborates: “This opinion uses (cleaned up) to indicate that internal quotation marks, alterations, and citations have been omitted from quotations. See Jack Metzler, Cleaning Up Quotations, 18 Journal of Appellate Practice and Process 143 (2017).” Another form this practice takes is reflected in the use of more specific parentheticals such as “(citation and punctuation omitted)” or “(internal quotation marks and citations omitted).”

Introduction to Basic Legal Citation, § 6-100. Quoting.

Simplifying Quotations With “Cleaned Up” Cite Parenthetical

Jack Metzler’s journal article actually started with a tweet on SCOTUSPlaces:

Jack Metzler Tweet re: Clean Case Citations

It was an idea whose time has come. I first read about Metzler’s proposal in a 2018 blog post on one of my favorite legal blogs, The Volokh Conspiracy. Eugene Volokh (a UCLA Law professor!) sold me on the idea with a real world example of (Cleaned Up) in action. Start with this gem of a quote:

The Court has identified three threshold conditions for establishing a § 2 violation: (1) the racial group is ” ‘ “sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district” ‘ “; (2) the racial group is ” ‘ “politically cohesive” ‘ “; and (3) the majority ” ‘ “vot[es] sufficiently as a bloc to enable it … usually to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.” ‘ ” Johnson v. De Grandy, 512 U.S. 997, 1006–1007, 114 S.Ct. 2647, 129 L.Ed.2d 775 (1994) (quoting Growe, 507 U.S., at 40, 113 S.Ct. 1075 (in turn quoting Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 50–51, 106 S.Ct. 2752, 92 L.Ed.2d 25 (1986))). These are the so-called Gingles requirements.

The Eighth Circuit cleaned up that mess to put forth the first precondition w/o changing its meaning, and the result is better by anyone’s standard:

The first Gingles precondition requires that “the racial group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district.” LULAC, 548 U.S. at 425, 126 S.Ct. 2594 (cleaned up).

Lawyers who are paid by the word (I don’t really think any actually are) might not like cleaned up case citations, but the rest of us do appreciate the simplicity. As Volokh says, “I like ‘cleaned up,’ because it helps focus readers on the important thing—the substance of the quoted text—without distracting them with the unimportant.”

For lawyers, Metzler provides a suggested footnote when using a (Cleaned up) case citation in a pleading so the court understands what happened to the quotation:

*This brief uses (cleaned up) to indicate that internal quotation marks, alterations, and citations have been omitted from quotations. See, e.g., United States v. Reyes, _ F.3d _, 2017 WL 3262281, at *4 (5th Cir. Aug. 1, 2017); Smith v. Kentucky, 520 S.W.3d 340, 354 (Ky. 2017); I.L. v. Knox County Board Of Education, No. 3:15-CV-558, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92257, at *24 & n.4 (E.D. Tenn. June 15, 2017).

Importance Of Case Citations In Quotes

Simplicity vs accuracy – there is a very valid reason for quotes in legal opinions, briefs, and articles. As Metzler says:

It assures readers that they don’t have to rely solely on the author’s say-so because the proposition has already been adopted by a court, and in so many words. An important part of that assurance comes from the citation that follows the quote, which communicates information from which the reader can assess the weight of the authority quoted. The reader learns which court (sometimes also which judge) said it, when the court said it, how to find the opinion in which the court said it, and the very page on which the quote appears.

Jack Metzler, Cleaning Up Quotations, 18 J. App. Prac. & Process 144 (2017)

But, as Metzler says, “These benefits are in tension, however, with the need for readability.”

Every time a legal opinion is quoted by another court, there’s another layer of quotation marks, ellipses, and page numbers to muddy the actual message. Thanks to case citations. A (Cleaned Up) legal citation removes those superfluous parts of the quote to return to its basic point. And the Graham.Law guides link back to the original source so the reader can verify what was removed from any cleaned up passage without having to take our word for it.

We think you’ll like the result on our family law sites: www.graham.law, www.colorado-family-law.com, and www.military-divorce-guide.com. The Graham.Law team, applying the “cleaned up” principles, helps bring case citations and legal quotes to the masses, or at least the 20th century.

U.S. Supreme Court Uses (Cleaned Up) – 2/25/2021 Update

The legal world was rocked today with an opinion from SCOTUS in Brownback vs King applying the Federal Tort Claims Act. For the purposes of this post, what matters is not what SCOTUS had to say about the FTCA (although if interested, you can read SCOTUSblog’s analysis, and the opinion linked from there).

Justice Thomas, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, includes the first known use of (cleaned up) from the highest court in the land.

(Cleaned Up) Case Citation from SCOTUS

Certain sectors of Twitter noticed this, and with SCOTUS themselves using (Cleaned Up) legal citations, I imagine more courts and lawyers will follow suit. Once in a while a great idea takes off!

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