The University of Houston Law Center made it a priority to address the legal concerns of America’s inner-city communities. Along with introducing new clinics, student groups, and classes focused on the issues facing metropolitan citizens, the school introduced four years ago the Houston Urban Law Journal, dedicated to the policies and legal matters that most affect that group.
Initially, the Urban Law Journal functioned like most other law journals, choosing its editors through a rigorous tryout, complete with Bluebook exercises and interviews. With time, however, the character of the journal has taken a more unconventional turn, emphasizing what has been called “street editing” and students’ “underground” cite-checking skills.
This has resulted in the newest innovative practice at the journal: Selection of new editors through what is called “cite-checking battles.” Those vying to join the journal’s editing staff match up one-on-one against one another, taking stage for improvisational cite-checking before an audience and putting their source-verifying abilities to the test through intense, often entertaining, contests. Often held late at night in abandoned buildings in the city’s Fifth Ward, these cite-checking battles earn victors places on the journal’s editing board, but, more importantly, immense respect from their peers.
“No editors out there can cite-check like me,” boasted “J-Scales,” who was recently given an offer to join the journal’s editorial board. “Some editor brings a weak Supreme Court case-cite, I hit back with the text of a municipal ordinance in Toledo, Ohio, in 1926. Some editor steps up with a United Nations resolution, I explode out of nowhere with an unreported decision of an administrative judge for the Mine Safety Commission. My boys are like, ‘Damn, J!’ Where you come up with these cites?’”
On a recent Saturday night, the journal held its fall competition in an empty warehouse in the city’s Beechnut neighborhood. After an hour of an amateur tournament, the final battle was set: “Gavel Bang” versus “Erroneous P.” Gavel Bang began with a string of intimidating cites:
“Yo, yo, e.g., Frank W. Lutherson, Annotation / The Writ of Habeus Corpus in Capital Espionage Cases 82 A.L.R. Fed. 286 (1964) / full docket number available in slip opinion, b*tches / United States v. Oliphant, 373 F.5d 923 (2nd Cir. 1849) / cert. granted 282 U.S. 932 (1853) / (No. 822, 1853 Term; renumbered No. 82-5, 1854 Term) / substantive information, use parentheticals, as needed, explain relevance, yo, yo / see generally Kevin Wrung, Xenophobia and Its Affect on Patent Regulation, 284 U. Roch. L. Rev. 82 (1835) / (describing trends in the visa application process as in relation to copyright procedures) / ordinary jurisdiction, courts of appeal in civil matters!”
Gavel Bang then slammed down his microphone, poured a bottle of Ye Olde British malt liquor over his head, and raises his hands in triumph. As the crowd exploded in cheers and riotous whooping, Erroneous P launched into a cite-check of his own:
“That’s right, muthaf*ckas, get ready, get ready / different case name on appeal / yo, parties names are reversed / Harold v. Charleston Street Vendors Ass’n, 923 N.L.R.B. 283 / enforced 495 F.8d 2843 (4th Cir. 1830) / denial of certiorari or rehearing / appeal of administrative action / what what? that’s right! promulgation year / abbreviate subdivisions, article, clause / Mixura Li art. 38, Sec. 8 (1859) (D.R.C.) / typeface, Internet source, unavailable in print medium / opinion available only on Internet / Lorton v. Kansas, No. 38-22576, slip op. at 9 (U.S. Jan. 24, 2006) / http://www.kscourts.org/opinions/06pdf/38-22576 / cite statutes, session laws, regulations / use jurisdiction parenthetically if not clear from context!”
Erroneous P then tore his shirt off and leaped into the audience, which, boisterously clamoring in approval, hoisted him up while he displayed various footnoted tattoos on his back. Gavel Bang attempted to keep his assault going, citing single editions with publisher and date, but that proved too simplistic for the mobs of journal editors in attendance, who quickly shouted him down with a chorus of jeers, sending him running from the stage in a barrage of empty Red Bull cans.
“Gavel Bang, he got things going. Ripped it for a while,” said “Mandamus Maximus,” an articles editor at the journal who judged the competition. “But trying to come back with a single edition? That sh*t is whack. Totally amateur.” With minimal deliberation, the board voted to offer Erroneous P an editorial position.
“I know my federal jurisdiction, no doubt,” said Erroneous P after the match. “No one can match me when it comes to constitutional courts or criminal matters. I’ll spit appeals without even thinking about it.”
While the technique has yet to spread outside of the Houston Urban Law Journal, other journal editors at other schools say they are impressed with students who bring street cites to their publications. As more and more people earn cite-checking cred on the underground scene, other law-school groups could embrace such competitions.
“I can put anything in a parenthetical, even substantive information,” said Robert Draysone, editor-in-chief of Memphis Law Review. “But I don’t know how these inner-city cite checkers can tear through judges and officials as fast and effortlessly as they do. I’ve even seen someone cite non-student-written book reviews without even blinking. It’s absolutely amazing.”