The Problem with Print Publication Dates

Here’s a reference question I thought I’d easily be able to answer:

What’s the publication date of the latest McKinney’s statutory compilation in print, or the equivalent published by Lexis? I need it for Bluebook citation.

We no longer carry most state statutes in print, so I hopped on Westlaw and Lexis to look for the print publication dates of the bound volumes of the current unofficial New York codes. On Westlaw, it’s McKinney’s Consolidated Laws of New York Annotated and on Lexis, it’s New York Consolidated Laws Service. Bluebook Rule 12.3.2 states, “When citing a bound volume of the current official or unofficial code, provide parenthetically the year that appears on the spine of the volume, the year that appears on the title page, or the latest copyright year — in that order of preference.” Bluebook Rule 12.5 covers commercial electronic databases, allowing for the “the name of the database and information regarding the currency of the database as provided by the database itself.”

One possible answer to the reference question is to simply refer the patron to Rule 12.5 and not bother with print publication dates. However, I was curious if this information was available on either platform. The question of print publication dates continues to arise from law review students, and I wondered whether the information was available, not just for New York statutes, but others as well. Unlike the United State Code, which I know is published every six years with annual cumulative supplements, there is no easy way to tell how often state codes are published and whether they follow a main volume/supplement publication schedule, or are published irregularly. Yes, I could visit publisher websites and consult state legislative pages to find this information, but it is not expedient.

The short answer is that print publication information is not available on either platform for state statutes. But should it be? Neither Westlaw or Lexis publishes their statutes online as they appeared in print, so while providing the print publication date would make it easy to cite to the print version of the statute, if the print version is different than the statutory text appearing online, the trail would be hard to follow as to which statutory text was actually relied on for citation purposes. There is no way on either Lexis or Westlaw to tell what statutory text appeared in the print versions.

Is this different than cases? The Bluebook does not require reported case citations to contain which electronic database was used (the rule is different for pending and unreported cases) to find the case. While law review students may still ask for the print version of a reporter, it is widely accepted that the Westlaw and Lexis versions of reported cases are authoritative and the print version does not need to be consulted. With cases, the date that matters most for citation purposes is when the case was reported. Statutes, on the other hand, require dates for currency, and the ability to tell what laws were in force when. While both Westlaw and Lexis provide historical statutes, there is no indication as to what was included in the print versions.

All of this is to say my answer to the reference question is two-fold: 1) print publication information is not available on either platform for state statutes; and 2) Rule 12.5 should be used for Bluebook citation of the statute. In a cursory look at law review citations to statutes, it’s clear that Rule 12.5 is not being widely used; are authors/editors really using print versions of state statutes during cite checking? I’m dubious this is true.

The Bluebook acknowledges the use of electronic databases for statutory citation, and it gives the okay to rely on those database providers to provide statute currency; therefore, Table 1 of The Bluebook should be reflected to include examples of citations to electronic databases, rather than using the print compilations as their primary examples. As many libraries no longer carry print statutes, the primary citation format for statutes will be to the electronic database version, and Table 1 should provide examples for ease of use.

Assistant Director, Research and Instruction, at Boley Law Library, Lewis and Clark Law School, in Portland, Oregon.