Treasury recently issued proposed regulations that tell us whether an entity is a “political subdivision” that can issue tax-exempt bonds on its own behalf. One requirement is that an entity must serve a “governmental purpose” to be a political subdivision. The proposed regulations say that an entity is only organized for a governmental purpose if the entity operates “in a manner that provides a significant public benefit with no more than incidental benefit to private persons.” As support for this statement, the proposed regulations contain this citation: “Cf., Rev. Rul. 90–74 (1990–2 CB 34).”

This year marks the 90th anniversary of The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, and last year, the 20th edition of the text was published. The Bluebook is written by law review editors at several top-tier law schools.  Depending on your perspective, it is either what it purports to be (a uniform system of citation) or a loathsome testament to the “reflex desire of every profession to convince the laity of the inscrutable rigor of its methods.”[1]  (Or both.)  There have been several pretenders to the throne, including the Maroonbook, created at the University of Chicago law school years ago, which has faded away, and the ALWD Citation Manual, created by teachers of legal writing in law school as a more user-friendly alternative. The ALWD manual has been adopted by a few jurisdictions, but the Bluebook still reigns. Each text provides for the usage of “citation signals” that introduce the citation and explain its relevance to the point that the author is making; the “Cf.” signal in the proposed political subdivision regulations is an example.

The signal “cf.” is an abbreviation for the Latin word “confer,” which translates to “compare.” It depends on which edition of The Bluebook you’re reading, but the 18th Edition (we work on a shoestring budget here at The Public Finance Tax Blog), like most modern editions, says this about the “cf.” signal: “Cited authority supports a proposition different from the main proposition but sufficiently analogous to lend support. . . The citation’s relevance will usually be clear to the reader only if it is explained.” Among the signals that an author can use to show that the cited authority supports the position the author asserts, “cf.” is the weakest.

But because the proposed political subdivision regulations offer no other support for the position that an entity cannot provide more than incidental private benefits and remain a political subdivision, one can only believe that Treasury must have meant something entirely different and that, at long last, the lowly “cf.” signal might be taking on new prominence.

And now, members of the legal citation community are scrambling to react to what could be a revolution in citation signal usage.

“Just as Darwin had his finches and Mendel had his peas, we now have these proposed regulations from Treasury,” said one editor of ALWD.  “I guess ‘cataclysm’ is probably too strong of a word to describe it,” she told The Public Finance Tax Blog. “But oh yeah, we definitely noticed.”

She told us that “we at ALWD consider ourselves more describers of ‘what is’ in legal citation practice, rather than dispensers of ‘what ought to be’ like those silverspoons over at The Bluebook.”[2]

“The fact is,” the ALWD editor continued, “the meaning of ‘cf.’ has changed many times over the years, [3] and we may be witnessing the latest evolution of the phrase here. Who says that a government agency can’t be on the cutting edge of social change in important areas like citation policy?”

“It’s certainly true that ‘cf.’ has always been the signal that gives courts and lawyers the hardest time to understand,”[4] another editor told us. “But who says that regulations – particularly tax regulations – are supposed to be easy to understand?”

Over at The Bluebook, the editors were a bit less perturbed. “Look, we make the rules here,” said one editor, swatting away a fair trade soy latte offered up by a cowering 2L line-slugger. “We are mindful of the actual – I SAID NO FOAM! GET IT RIGHT, OR WE’RE CANCELING THE 5-HOUR BLUEBOOK EXAM FOR TOMORROW – usage  of these terms, though,” she said, “and we’re obviously going to resist changing our minds based on a single usage, even if it comes from the federal government.”

“In the past, we’ve resisted changing our minds based on some of the more fatuous uses of the cf. signal,[5] so we want to wait and see whether this is some kind of joke or mistake or just a passing fad, using ‘cf.’ to introduce the sole source of authority for a proposition.” She continued, “but it appears that this might be a good-faith attempt to finally give ‘cf.’ the rightful place it deserves instead of leaving it buried at the bottom of the pile of citation signals that show support.”

“But we’ve really got our hands full with preparations for the 21st edition, and dealing with those maniacs over at Baby Blue ripping off our work to worry about this, though. And no, all you weisenheimers; cf. does not stand for ‘couldn’t find,’ and no you’re not funny.”

It’s obviously easy to criticize the furor over the potential elevation of the status of the lowly “cf.” signal to something more as a tempest in the world’s nerdiest teapot. It’s not as though these mundane citation signal questions are literally[6] a matter of life and death.[7]

Calls to Judge Richard Posner, eminent judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and a frequent critic of the inanity of the world of legal citation, were left unreturned, although I think I heard the crackling of a bonfire in the background.

For further coverage of this fascinating controversy, click here.