Citing the U.S. Code in the New Year: Part 2

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In yesterday’s Carolina Blawg post, I posited what seemed to me to be the most reasonable theory as to why it was appropriate to cite the U.S. Code with the year 2018. An attentive reader has noted that there is an equally strong – perhaps even stronger – justification. This argument also exposes an interesting technological problem, so I felt it would helpful to offer this follow up post as a companion to the first one.

Bluebook Rule 18.2.1(a), as noted, allows for citation to sources available online “as if to the original print source” in three cases: when there is an “[1] authenticated, [2] official, or [3] exact copy of a source available online.” I based my argument on the third option, availability of an “exact copy,” on the assumption that the PDFs of the U.S. Code were neither authenticated nor official. This assumption, like many to have come before it, is flat-out wrong.

The GPO has been authenticating many of the documents it posts for many years now. On a page explaining the process, the agency notes the importance of a reader knowing that “no unauthorized changes have been made” to the document they are viewing, and that the document “has not been fabricated, and has in fact been disseminated by GPO in that very form.” The technology of digital signatures is a bit beyond the scope of this post, but it is sufficient to say that in general, it works now and has worked well for quite some time.

But why, then, did I not know that GPO versions of the U.S. Code 2018 edition were in fact authenticated, official documents?

It seems the problem was with the web browser I was using to complete my research task. I use Firefox for most of my browsing, which in general is pretty great! But for some reason, the built-in PDF viewer on Firefox does not display the GPO authentication certificate. I don’t know how long this has been the case, but I seem to remember it working fine in the past. Alas, technology is always changing, and as lawyers and law students and law librarians, we must be aware of it! GPO certainly is, stating that “[i]f you are not using Adobe Acrobat or Reader, the digital signature validation process may not occur.”

I tested the digital Title 15 on both the Chrome and Microsoft Edge browsers, and the blue GPO logo appears indicating that the document is authenticated. As the GPO notes, “[t]he recommended way to verify GPO’s digitally signed PDFs is to open the file using Adobe Acrobat or Reader software.”

Title 15 from GovInfo on Firefox
Title 15 viewed on Firefox

Title 15 from GovInfo on Chrome
Title 15 viewed on the Chrome browser

Title 15 from GovInfo on Adobe Reader
Title 15 viewed on Adobe Reader

So, if you had any doubts about the validity of relying on only one part of Rule 18.2.1 (or, alternatively, on similar language in Rule 12.2.1(a)), perhaps this post will put your mind at ease. But more important, if you are a regular Firefox user, I hope you have learned from my mistake and will know that you may need to take an extra step or two in order to have the GPO’s digital signature appear on your screen.

Posted by Aaron S. Kirschenfeld on Tue. January 7, 2020 4:31 PM
Categories: Uncategorized

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