Court citation

From Academic Kids

Court citation is a standard system used in common law countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada to uniquely identify the location of past court cases in special series of books called reporters.


United States

The standard case citation format in the United States is:

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)


  • Roe v. Wade is the name of the case,
  • 410 is the volume number of the "reporter" it appears in,
  • U.S. is the abbreviation of the reporter,
  • 113 is the page number where the opinion begins, and
  • 1973 is the year in which the opinion was published.

These numbers are used to find a particular case if, for example, you wanted to look up a case (in the particular book it was printed in) at a law library, or do a search for the case over the Internet.

This format also allows different cases with the same parties to be easily differentiated. For example, looking for the U.S. Supreme Court case of Miller v. California would yield four cases, some involving different people named Miller, and all involving different issues.

United States Supreme Court

Cases from the Supreme Court of the United States are officially printed in the United States Reports (U.S.). A citation to the United States Reports looks like this:

There are also two unofficial reporters, the Supreme Court Reporter (S. Ct.) and the Lawyer's Edition (L. Ed.), which are printed by private companies and provide further annotations to the opinions of the Court. Although a citation to the latter two is not required, some attorneys and legal writers prefer to cite all three at once:

The "2d" after the L. Ed. signifies the second series of the Lawyers' Edition. United States case reporters are sequentially numbered, but the volume number is never higher than 999. When volume 1,000 is reached, the volume number is reset to 1 and a "2d" is appended after the reporter's abbreviation (American lawyers have a tradition of using "2d" and "3d" rather than "2nd" and "3rd"). Some case reporters are in their third series, and a few are approaching their fourth.

Some very old Supreme Court cases have odd-looking citations, such as Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803). The "(1 Cranch)" refers to the fact that, before there was an official court reporter, cases were gathered, bound together, and sold by private individuals who had contracted with the Court for the right to do so. In this case, the case was first reported in an edition by William Cranch, who was responsible for publishing Supreme Court reports from 1801 to 1815. Such reports, named for the individual who gathered them, existed from 1790 to 1874.

Lower federal courts

United States court of appeals cases are published in the Federal Reporter (F., F.2d, or F.3d). United States district court cases are published in the Federal Supplement (F. Supp. or F. Supp. 2d). Both are published by the West Publishing Company; they are technically unofficial reporters, but have become widely accepted as the de facto "official" reporters of the lower federal courts because of the absence of a true official reporter.

When lower federal court opinions are cited, the citation usually includes the name of the court. This is placed in the parentheses immediately before the year. Some examples:

State courts

State court decisions are published in several places. Many states have their own state reporter, which publishes decisions of that state's highest court. These reporters have the same abbreviation as that state.

In addition to the official reporters, West Publishing Company publishes several series of "regional reporters" which cover several states each. These include the North Eastern Reporter, Atlantic Reporter, South Eastern Reporter, South Western Reporter, North Western Reporter, and Pacific Reporter. California, Illinois, and New York also each have their own line of West reporters, because of the large volume of cases generated in those states. Some smaller states (like South Dakota) have stopped publishing their own official reporters, and instead have certified the appropriate West regional reporter as their "official" reporter.

Here are some examples of how to cite West reporters:

  • Jackson v. Commonwealth, 583 S.E.2d 780 (Va. Ct. App. 2003) - a case in the Virginia Court of Appeals (an intermediate appellate court) published in the South Eastern Reporter
  • Foxworth v. Maddox, 137 So. 161 (Fla. 1931) - a case in the Florida Supreme Court published in the Southern Reporter
  • People v. Brown, 282 N.Y.S.2d 497 (1967) - a case in the New York Court of Appeals (New York's highest court) published in the New York Supplement. The case also appears in West's regional reporter: People v. Brown, 229 N.E.2d 192 (N.Y. 1967).

Abbreviations for lower courts vary by state, as each state has its own system of trial courts and intermediate appellate courts.

When a case appears in both an official reporter and a regional reporter, either citation can be used. Many lawyers prefer to include both citations. Many state courts require that both citations be used when citing cases from any court in that state's system (a practice technically known as "parallel citations").

Some states, notably California and New York, have their own citation systems which differ significantly from the various federal and national standards. Citations in California style put the year between the names of the parties and the reference to the case reporter. Citations in New York style wrap the year in brackets instead of parentheses. Both New York and California wrap an entire citation in parentheses when it is used as a stand-alone sentence. New York puts the terminating period outside the parentheses, but California puts it inside. New York wraps just the reporter and page references in parentheses when the citation is used as a clause.

Either way, both state styles differ from the national/Bluebook style of simply dropping in the citation as a separate sentence without further adornment. Both systems use less punctuation and spacing in their reporter abbreviations.

For example, assuming that it is being placed as a stand-alone sentence, the Brown case above would be cited (using the official reporter) to a New York court as:

  • (People v. Brown, 20 NY2d 238 [1967]).

And, again, as a stand-alone sentence, the famous Greenman product liability case would be cited to a California court as:

  • (Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc. (1963) 59 Cal.2d 57.)

Like the United States Supreme Court, some very old state case citations include an abbreviation of the name of the private publisher who collected the cases. Most states gave up this practice in the mid- to late-1800s, but Delaware persisted until 1920.

Unpublished decisions

A growing number of court decisions are not published in case reporters. This is because in many parts of the U.S., especially California, the legislature has failed to expand the judiciary to keep up with population growth (for various political and fiscal reasons).

To deal with their crushing caseloads, many judges prefer to do shorter-than-normal opinions that dispose in a sentence or two of the frivolous issues in the case, but they do not want such opinions published because of the risk of making bad law (under the rule of stare decisis). For example, only 7% of the opinions of the California intermediate courts (the Courts of Appeal) are published each year.

Attorneys have several options in citing "unpublished" decisions.

  • For recently-decided cases which will eventually be published, the docket number from the court can be used as a citation.
  • Cases which are intentionally left unpublished are often "published" on computer services, such as LexisNexis and Westlaw. These services have their own citation formats based on serial numbers (issued sequentially from 1 as documents are added to the database each year). A Westlaw citation looks like this: Fuqua Homes, Inc. v. Beattie, No. 03-3587, 2004 WL 2495842 (8th Cir. November 8, 2004).

Some court systems—such as the California state court system and the federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—forbid attorneys to cite unpublished cases as precedent. Since 2004, a huge debate has been going on among federal judges as to whether the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure should be amended so that unpublished cases in all circuits can be cited as precedent.

Vendor neutral citations

With the rise of the web, many courts placed new cases on websites. Some were published while others never lost their "unpublished" status. The major legal citation systems required cites to the officially published page numbers, in which publishers such as West publishing claimed a copyright interest. (In view of the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service, that the mere alphabetical listing of telephone subscribers was an inadequate amount of effort to be valid to obtain copyright, the claim of copyright on page numbering of court decisions is probably not valid.)

A vendor neutral citation movement ( led to provisions being made for citations to web-based cases and other legal materials. A few courts modified their rules to specifically take into account cases "published" on the web.

Pinpoint citations

In practice, most lawyers go one step farther, once they have developed the correct citation for a case using the rules discussed above. Most court opinions contain holdings on multiple issues, so lawyers need to cite to the page that contains the specific holding they wish to invoke in their own case. Such citations are known as pinpoint citations, or "pin cites" for short.

For example, in Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the word "person" as used in the Fourteenth Amendment does not include the unborn. A full pin cite to Roe for the page with that holding would be as follows:

And a parallel cite to all three U.S. Supreme Court reporters, combined with pin cites for all three, would produce:

  • Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 158, 93 S. Ct. 705, 729, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, 180 (1973).

But in its opinions, the Court usually provides a direct pin cite only to the official reporter, as follows:

Even then, such citations are still quite lengthy, and obviously look quite mysterious and intimidating to laypersons when they try to read court opinions. Since the 1980s, there has been an ongoing debate among American judges as to whether they should relegate such lengthy citations to footnotes to improve the readability of their opinions. Most judges do relegate some citations to footnotes, but Justice Stephen Breyer is famous for never, ever using footnotes in his opinions.

Britain and the Commonwealth

Before 1865, English courts used a large number of privately-printed reporters, and cases were cited based on which reporter they appeared in. (This system was also used in the United States and other common law jurisdictions during that period).

In 1865, many English cases were reprinted in a set of volumes called English Reports, abbreviated E.R. Between 1865 and 1875, decisions were published in the Law Reports, or L.R.

Since 1875, different British courts have used different abbreviations in their citations. Common citations include Q.B.D. for Queen's Bench Division, Ch. D. for Chancery Division, and Ex. D. for Exchequer Division.

In the UK and other Commonwealth countries, the abbreviation "R," for rex (king) or regina (queen), is used for cases in which the state is a party. R v. Dudley and Stephens, for instance, was a criminal case in which the British government prosecuted Dudley and Stephens.


The standard case citation format in Canada is:

Style of cause (year of decision), [year of reporter] volume reporter (series) page jurisdiction/court
R. v. Oakes, [1986] 1 S.C.R. 103.
Re Canada Trust Co. and O.H.R.C. (1990), 69 D.L.R. (4th) 321 (Ont. C.A.).

The Style of Cause is italicized as in all other countries and the party names are separated by "v." (english) or "c." (french). Prior to 1984 the appellant party would always be named first. However, since then case names do not switch order when the case is appealed.

Undisclosed parties to a case are represented by initials (eg. R. v. R.D.S.). Criminal cases are prosecuted by the Crown which is always represented by "R.". Constitutional References are always entitled "Reference Re" followed by the subject title.

Usually either the year of the decision or the year of the reporter is cited, but not usually both. Only if they are different years can they both be cited at the same time. If they are the same, one should always use the reporter year.


Types of Citations

There are two types of citations: proprietary and public domain citations. There are many citation guides; the most commonly acknowledged is called the Bluebook, published by students at several eminent law schools, led by Harvard Law School. The ALWD Citation Manual is a recent (as of 2004) publication that is quickly winning supporters. Public domain citations are those which usually refer to the official reporters and not some kind of publication service such as Westlaw or LexisNexis or some particular legal journal or specialization specific reporter.

States with their own unique style for court documents and case opinions also publish their own style guides which include information on their citation rules.

See also

External links


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