Wikipedia is great for a lot of things. But using it to make legal arguments is a good way to undermine your credibility, as one lawyer in Kentucky recently found out.
A federal judge admonished the attorney for supporting his client’s ineffective assistance of counsel argument with a verbatim recital of a Wikipedia discussion on the topic. The attorney’s unattributed use of the Wikipedia article was plagiarism and, the court suggested, might be professional misconduct. The court also noted that Wikipedia is “not an acceptable source of legal authority in the U.S. district courts.”
Issues of plagiarism aside, this lawyer isn’t the first to use Wikipedia in a legal document. There probably are appropriate uses of Wikipedia in legal writing, and in fact, there is a Wikipedia article about courts that cite to Wikipedia. Most courts that do so use Wikipedia for illustrative purposes, such as this recent copyright case that cites to Wikipedia’s entry about fantasy football as a means of illuminating the context out of which the case arises. Using Wikipedia to establish anything of significance, however, can be troublesome. In 2008, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded an asylum application which was denied in part based on information an immigration judge culled from Wikipedia. And it should go without saying that supporting a legal argument with a Wikipedia article is bad idea. A Texas attorney cited Wikipedia’s article about a U.S. Supreme Court case in an attempt to persuade the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that it had previously misinterpreted the case. Not surprisingly, the court disagreed.