Let’s say you need a new chef’s knife. So you go to Bed, Bath & Beyond and head for the kitchen section. (That’s part of the “Beyond,” I guess.) In a fancy cutlery display you see a large selection of chef’s knives. But you don’t buy any of those. Instead, you walk right past the chef’s knives and over to the cheese knives. After perusing a bit, you buy this set:

That’s a nice set of cheese knives!

Looks pretty nice! But when you get home and start preparing dinner, the cheese knives just don’t seem to do the job. It’s a total disaster! The next morning you go back to BB&B to return the knives. “They didn’t work at all! I couldn’t even slice a tomato with these things!” you complain. “And don’t even get me started on what happened when I tried to dice an onion!”

Not surprisingly, the customer service rep at BB&B isn’t sympathetic. She calmly responds, “Sir, these are cheese knives.”

Obviously, nobody would ever do anything like that. We understand that different tools have different purposes. And you shouldn’t malign a tool for not working in circumstances for which it was not designed to work. Something clearly labeled “cheese knife” should be used for cheese, not dicing onions.

But for some reason, people malign The Bluebook for this sort of thing all the time. The most recent entry in the catalog is this piece from Judge Gerald Lebovits: Cite-Seeing Part II: The Bluebook’s New York Bloopers. Judge Lebovits pulls no punches in his critique of The Bluebook’s “mistakes”: It “fails miserably when it comes to New York citations.” “Every rule and example in the Bluebook violates how a practitioner, judge, or academic should cite New York authorities.” “The Bluebook’s rule also contradicts” various state rules and statutes. And “it’s not hard to spot incorrect examples for New York in the Bluebook.”

Yikes.

Much of Judge Lebovits’s scorn is directed at The Bluebook’s rules for choosing which reporter to use when citing to an opinion:

The Bluebook instructs readers to use unofficial reporters in citations. This contradicts New York’s CPLR 5529(e), which proves that “New York decisions shall be cited from the official reports, if any.” . . . .

The next six paragraphs explain why New York’s official N.Y. reporter is superior to the N.E. reporter recommended by The Bluebook.

To be clear: I am 100% in agreement with Judge Lebovits on the substance of his article. New York lawyers should follow the New York local citation rules when filing documents in New York courts. Of course that’s right. New York lawyers should not follow the general Bluebook rules for the same reason they should not follow Washington’s local rules or The Maroon Book or Judge Posner’s six-page citation guide. Those other guides just don’t apply to New York filings. [Note: You shouldn’t follow Judge Posner’s citation guide anyway.]

But does The Bluebook fail for New York citations? Does it violate New York rules? I don’t think so. Judge Lebovits correctly observes that the general Bluebook rules for case citations do not mirror the specific New York rules. The Bluebook, however, is a generalist guide, primarily designed for the editors of student-run law journals. Those editors work at law schools all over the country. And they publish pieces of scholarship that include citations to case law from jurisdictions all over the world.

In that setting, it makes sense for the editors to learn one uniform citation format for all opinions from all states. New York is not the only jurisdiction with its own particular citation rules. Should an editor on the Washington Law Review really have to learn the intricacies of New York’s citation practices every time an author happens to cite to an opinion from New York? Would that editor similarly need to learn the different rules for every other jurisdiction when authors happened to cite a opinion from Utah, or Minnesota, or Louisiana? Imagine what law review citations would look like (and the amount of extra work they would require) if opinions were not cited pursuant to The Bluebook’s uniform rules, but pursuant to the disparate rules adopted by every different jurisdiction.

The Bluebook doesn’t “violate” New York rules because citation rules are not dictated by the jurisdiction that issues an opinion. Rather, citation rules are dictated by the jurisdiction to which an author is submitting the authority. New York courts may be powerful, but their local rules do not dictate the citation practices of student journals, international tribunals, book publishers, or courts in other states. Those entities can (and do) have their own citation rules.

Citation rules of other jurisdictions, as viewed from 9th Avenue

The Bluebook understands this reality. But Judge Lebovits downplays The Bluebook’s accommodation of local rules. For example, he claims that the “Bluebook instructs readers to use unofficial reporters in citations.” In support of this claim, he cites to Rule 10.3. And yes, Rule 10.3 tells authors to cite to the reporters listed in Table T1, which mostly includes the “unofficial” regional reporters.

But immediately following that instruction, right there in Rule 10.3.1, The Bluebook tells lawyers to follow local rules!

(a) Parallel citations in state court documents. In documents submitted to state courts, all case citations must be to the source(s) required by local rules. Many state rules require that citations to state court decisions include a citation to the official state reporter, followed by a parallel citation to a regional reporter. Thus, these local rules, and not the citation rules set forth in table T1, govern state court filings. See Bluepages table BT10.1.3 for further guidance concerning jurisdiction-specific citation rules.

In other words, The Bluebook expressly agrees with Judge Lebovits’s substantive advice: When filing in state court, follow the state court’s rules. Don’t follow the general rules designed for student law review editors. This cheese knife is clearly labeled as a cheese knife.

Rule 10.3.1’s reference to the Bluepages is particularly relevant here, because the Bluepages are specifically designed to “provide easy-to-comprehend guidance for the everyday citation needs of . . . practicing lawyers, and other legal professionals.” Bluebook at 1. The introduction to the Bluepages clearly states: “The Bluepages are a guide for practitioners and law clerks to use when citing authority in non-academic legal documents.” Bluebook at 3. And again, when explaining which reporter(s) to include in a citation, the Bluepages make clear that the lawyer should follow local rules:

In documents submitted to state courts, all case citations should be to the reporters required by local rules. To find local rules for the court in which you are submitting a document, refer to Bluepages table BT2.

Bluebook at 14.

Judge Lebovits is not impressed by any of this—particularly The Bluebook’s treatment of state rules regarding parallel citations to multiple reporters. He explains:

The Bluebook . . . endorses parallel citations. For this rule, the following is an example of the Bluebook’s citation to the Court of Appeals [of New York]: Kenford Co. v. County of Erie, 73 N.Y.2d 312, 537 N.E.2d 176, 540 N.Y.S.2d 1 (1989). But New York courts don’t need or want parallel citations, and the Official Reports won’t publish them. Using them in court documents is impractical.

But again, this critique conflates the idea of New York courts (which can dictate citation rules for New York filings) and New York opinions (which should be cited according to the local rules of the jurisdiction to which a lawyer is submitting the filing). I might be particularly sensitive to this distinction, at least for The Bluebook’s example of a proper Kenford citation, because here is Washington’s local rule for how to cite New York opinions:

Cite official reports and regional reporters for all cases for which official reports are published. . . . For California, Illinois, and New York, include the state specific reporter (Cal. Rptr. 3d, Ill. Dec., N.Y.S.2d) in addition to the official reports and regional reporters.

Washington Style Sheet, exception 9 (emphasis added).

And here’s a recent example of the Washington Supreme Court citing to a New York opinion pursuant to Washington’s own local rules:

For instance, in the federal system and many states, a willfully absconding defendant may be sentenced in absentia. E.g., [citations omitted], People v. Corley, 67 N.Y.2d 105, 109-10, 491 N.E.2d 1090, 500 N.Y.S.2d 633 (1986).

State v. Wences, 189 Wn.2d 675, 691, 406 P.3d 267 (2017). (Note: I’m following Washington style in my citation to this Washington opinion.)

So after all that, it looks like the Kenford example, though incorrect if submitted to New York courts, would be correct if submitted to a Washington court. The Bluebook‘s example isn’t wrong at all.

Judge Lebovits closes with this recommendation: “Good lawyers should cite New York’s Tanbook.” That seems like great advice. The Tanbook is likely a great resource for New York practitioners, who no doubt spend most of their time practicing and filing in New York courts. 

But it’s not a failure of The Bluebook that it’s not specifically designed with the needs of the New York practitioner in mind. The Bluebook has a different purpose. And for the most part, it serves that purpose quite well