Citing to federal and state court opinions normally isn't an issue to inspire heated debate and prolonged struggle, but it's at the center of a war over the way judges, lawyers and others will refer to judicial decisions in the future.

On one side is West Publishing Group, the nation's most prominent legal publisher for more than a century, and reluctant judges and court staff who want to keep the case law citation standard owned by West. On the other side are lawyers, law librarians and a smattering of judges and staff who say the digital era has arrived, and the legal profession and justice system must embrace a new system to accommodate electronic documents, particularly those becoming available on the Internet.

West, purchased last year by Canada's Thomson Corp., leads the fight against court-issued, vendor-neutral and format-neutral citations, because it holds a lucrative copyright on the dominant method for identifying judicial rulings. But the Minnesota-based company, which has managed to retain its monopoly despite several court challenges, now finds itself facing some formidable advocates of a nationally uniform citation standard free from copyright claims, along with two federal court decisions that essentially strip West of its copyright. Those rulings have been appealed to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, but if they are upheld, they may transform the Internet into the primary source of public access to judicial information.

Many federal and state court opinions, including those from the U.S. Supreme Court, federal circuit courts of appeals and many state supreme courts, already are available from the Internet for free, usually from

law school Web pages like , but increasingly from the court's own sites. There's also a growing number of fee-based case law databases on the Internet, along with numerous collections on CD-ROM. This rapidly expanding electronic access to legal material, which isn't tied to printed-page references, is at odds with West's page-based copyrighted citation system, say lawyers and law librarians.

Several states -- including Wisconsin, Louisiana, South Dakota and Oklahoma -- have adopted or are experimenting with court-generated public domain citation schemes, designed to be medium-neutral so they could be used equally by print and electronic publishers. But it wasn't until the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), a former ally of West, issued a report in 1995 that the smoldering movement for a new citation standard really started to blaze.

In that report,

task_force.html>, AALL called for the courts to adopt a universal system based on year, court, sequential numbering of decisions, and paragraph numbers, which could be used with equal confidence regardless of the source -- electronic, paper or another form.

According to the AALL and other critics, problems with the current printed-page citation system include:

* There's no permanent citation until a printed copy is privately published, often a month or more later than the opinion is issued.

* Copyrighted citation systems reduce competitiveness and create a de facto monopoly for a few select publishers.

* Page numbers change with page size and font size, forcing lawyers to use cumbersome parallel cites from different publishers to the same case.

Citation reformers argue that adopting a new, simple national standard would eliminate the rising confusion caused by West competitors starting to provide their own citations. And, they contend, it would reduce the cost of getting and citing to judicial material because it would allow even more publishers to enter the legal market without paying copyright licenses or risking infringement suits.

"The point is that a format-neutral citation is justified by the fact that courts can electronically disseminate opinions as soon as they're released," said Alan D. Sugarman, president of New York's HyperLaw and a party in the challenges to