Dangerous Citations

95 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1619 (2020)

61 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2020 Last revised: 6 Jan 2021

Date Written: December 22, 2020


This Article considers when optional case citations may do more harm than good. There are valid reasons for citing to non-binding precedent — to promote consistency in the law, for example, or to avoid wasteful redundancy. But unconsidered invocations of non-binding authority may also introduce error into individual opinions and distort the path of the law over time. This Article catalogues such dangerous citations, particularly as used by federal district courts citing to other federal district courts. It does so with three practical goals in mind: to help judges use non-binding authority constructively, to help law clerks think critically about their research methods, and to help readers of judicial opinions question the rhetoric of citations.

In mapping these problematic uses of non-binding authority, the Article distinguishes between poorly conceived citations and poorly implemented citations. Poorly conceived citations are those for which non-binding precedent is rarely a useful authority. Examples of poorly conceived citations include reliance on prior opinions to establish facts or the content of another sovereign’s laws. Poorly implemented citations are those for which non-binding precedent may be relevant but should be selected and applied with care. Examples of poorly implemented citations include over-extended analogies and reliance on judge-made tests that are misaligned with the question being evaluated.

This catalogue of poorly conceived and poorly implemented citations surfaces some common themes, including the need for better-designed tests and the challenges posed by modern research methods. But dangerous citations are not simply a matter of inadvertence, carelessness, or mistake; they may also be deployed for rhetorical purposes, in particular to signal legitimacy and restraint. The Article thus ends with a warning against “performative judging,” or the use of excessive citations to suggest greater constraint than the law in fact provides. Such citations are dangerous not just for the error they may introduce, but also because they obscure judicial choice and the inherently discretionary nature of judging.

Keywords: courts, precedent, citations, judges, federal courts, district courts, legal error

Suggested Citation

Gardner, Maggie, Dangerous Citations (December 22, 2020). 95 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1619 (2020), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3631446

Maggie Gardner (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics