Legal System Warms Up to Wikipedia – But Not Too Much

The New York Times reports that Courts in the US are increasingly using Wikipedia as a reference material, but with caution because of the issue of reliability and accuracy.

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.)

Wikipedia is cited as a good resource, particularly because of its being up-to-date and the convenience of access. However, because of a perceived lack of quality control, judges are still wary of using it as a reference for critical issues. This can be particularly dangerous especially given the possibility of Wikipedia entries being arbitrarily edited with the aim of influencing the outcomes of court cases.

Some would agree that referring to Wikipedia is all right if used for “soft facts” that are not central to the reasoning of judicial decisions, but would help in establishing the context of such a decision. This is particularly helpful for other parties who would be reading such decisions.

However, one serious problem that could arise with the use of a relatively unreliable resource in judicial decisions is that past decisions are usually referred to and cited in the future as authority when making arguments about related cases.

In a recent letter to The New York Law Journal, Kenneth H. Ryesky, a tax lawyer who teaches at Queens College and Yeshiva University, took exception to the practice, writing that “citation of an inherently unstable source such as Wikipedia can undermine the foundation not only of the judicial opinion in which Wikipedia is cited, but of the future briefs and judicial opinions which in turn use that judicial opinion as authority.”

Still, I would personally think that the value of Wikipedia would be as a collection of third-party references. Wikipedia entries–at least those that conform to the guidelines–require the citation of reliable published sources. Of course, these sources are still subject to the above-mentioned possibility of being included for the purpose of influencing decisions. Even so, Wikipedia might still be useful in that it can serve as a “connector” between individuals doing research and other more reliable resources.