Judge uses Wiki in case

The 84-page opinion legalizing same-sex marriage in Connecticut included scores of citations: legal precedents, friend-of-the-court briefs — and Wikipedia.

It was a simple fact — the number of gay Congressmen — that easily could have been passed off to a clerk or page. Instead, Justice Richard Palmer attributed it to the free online user-generated encyclopedia.

The passing reference stood out in an inevitably controversial decision. While Internet sources have become increasingly common in legal opinions, legal experts said Wikipedia still comes as a surprise.

“They could have done better; I’m a little disappointed,” said Kenji Yoshino LAW ’96, a constitutional law professor at New York University who used to teach at Yale. “I hope we’re not devolving into the days of a wiki-constitution quite yet.”

Connecticut Supreme Court staff are not commenting on Friday’s decision.

A search of all federal and all state court decisions ever made revealed that 247 have cited Wikipedia. That number could continue to grow as the encyclopedia becomes more mainstream, although Wikipedia’s accuracy remains controversial. “Wikipedia acknowledges that it should not be used as a primary source for serious research,” according to, naturally, Wikipedia.

Generally, the appeal of online sources is that they are widely accessible, Yoshino said. In this case, Wikipedia may have been used because there is no official record on openly gay Congressmen as there would be for, say, black representatives Yoshino added.

Still, Yoshino said, he hopes the court swaps out the reference for something more credible before the opinion is finalized at the end of the term.

Yale has no official policy on whether the encyclopedia is an acceptable academic resource. Different professors and teaching fellows have different policies. The proponents can now count Yale lecturer Flemming Norcott Jr., a Connecticut Supreme Court justice who joined the majority opinion, among them.

Comments

  • Richard L.A. Schaefer

    Ironically, if the U.S. Supreme Court had used Wikipedia, it might have avoided making the mistake it did regarding the death penalty case about rape when the Court misstated the status of U.S. military law on the subject, claiming an absence where there is a presence of such law

  • Erin

    My professors in both undergraduate and graduate school would NEVER accept wikipedia as a serious source in a paper. Yikes!!!

  • Anonymous

    Holy cow! Wikipedia is about as reliable as street gossip. As long as someone somewhere said something and someone else (a "reliable source," the definition of which on Wikipedia is malleable) printed it, it's considered to be 100% factual, accurate and true even if it is 100% fictitious, inaccurate and false. Wikipedia has a well-known (but never admitted) liberal bias among its editors and many of them are well-versed in how to game the system so that their biased point of view prevails.

  • Tim

    Actually Wikipedia is quite reliable on high-publicity, factual issues - especially where they involve living people. It's not like the Court was citing an article on an obscure topic (too few editors to ensure reliability) or a subjective issue (disagreement among editors). Rather, this information would likely have been checked for accuracy by several informed editors.