Judiciary

Judge Posner Confesses He Was Unable to Master the Hated Bluebook While at Harvard Law School


Judge Richard Posner hasn’t mastered the 511 pages that make up the latest edition of The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation. The Chicago-based federal appeals judge hasn’t even read it in detail.

“I have dipped into it, much as one might dip one’s toes in a pail of freezing water,” Posner writes in an article for the Yale Law Journal. “I am put in mind of Mr. Kurtz’s dying words in Heart of Darkness—‘The horror! The horror!’ ”

Even at Harvard Law School, when The Bluebook was just a quarter of its present size, Posner had problems with the manual. In a footnote, he recalls being called on the carpet by the law review’s managing editor, Peter Edelman, now a professor at Georgetown University’s law school. Edelman was of the view that Posner had performed a deficient technical cite check on an article or note. “He was quite savage in his criticisms,” Posner recalls, “and I worried, though it turned out unnecessarily, that his criticisms would result in my being passed over for the presidency” of the law review.

Posner doesn’t use The Bluebook in his judicial opinions. Instead, he hands his court clerks a manual with a short section on citation form, complete with a “cheat sheet” of examples. “I think that if one compares my citation system to that of The Bluebook, one will at least begin to question The Bluebook’s utility,” he writes.

Posner appreciates the convention of placing the volume number before the name of a statute, case or article, and the page number directly after it. He also likes uniformity for abbreviations of the federal and state case reporters and of West’s regional reporters. But why is there a need, he asks, to have a standard abbreviation for the Código de Águas of Brazil?

“What is the point?” he writes. “It’s as if there were a heavy tax on letters, making it costly to write out Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals instead of abbreviating it “C.G. Ct. Crim. App.”

The Bluebook was only 26 pages long when it was first published in 1926, Posner says. “Will this mindless growth ever cease?” he asks.

Hat tip to PrawfsBlawg and the Volokh Conspiracy, which commented on the article.

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