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The Role of Wikipedia in Judicial Decisions

This article, Courts Turn to Wikipedia, Selectively (NYT, 1/29/07) reports on the increasing citation by judges to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. From the article:

A simple search of published court decisions shows that Wikipedia is frequently cited by judges around the country, involving serious issues and the bizarre -- such as a 2005 tax case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals concerning the definition of ''beverage'' that involved hundreds of thousands of dollars, and, just this week, a case in Federal District Court in Florida that involved the term ''booty music'' as played during a wet T-shirt contest.  More than 100 judicial rulings have relied on Wikipedia, beginning in 2004, including 13 from circuit courts of appeal, one step below the Supreme Court. (The Supreme Court thus far has never cited Wikipedia.)

The article quotes 7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner (who is listed in Wikipedia):

'Wikipedia is a terrific resource,'' said Judge Richard A. Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago. ''Partly because it so convenient, it often has been updated recently and is very accurate.'' But, he added: ''It wouldn't be right to use it in a critical issue. If the safety of a product is at issue, you wouldn't look it up in Wikipedia.''

To me, the convenience of Wikipedia, and the ability to access it from a desktop, more than anything, explains its pervasive use. By contrast, sources like Encyclopedia Brittanica aren't widely quoted (or at least not such that I can recall) because most law libraries don't even carry encyclopedias, so a citation would require a trip to a general library. 

Professor Stephen Gillers, also quoted in the article, says including Wikipedia makes opinions more understandable:

[Judges include Wikipedia cites because] you want your opinion to be readable,'' said Professor Gillers. ''You want to apply context. Judges will try to set the stage. There are background facts. You don't have to include them. They are not determinitive. But they help the reader appreciate the context.'

If Wikipedia makes judicial decisions more accessible to the general public, that feature alone makes it worth citing.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 30, 2007 at 06:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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