Deciphering the Lawyer Code: What Case Citations Mean

Deciphering the nomenclature of case citations is essential when conducting case law legal research or when reading or writing legal memorandums and briefs.

A case citation, or “cite”, is a shorthand reference identifying a specific legal case. While at first case citations may look foreign to those unfamiliar with them, they are relatively simple to understand once you learn the basic formatting.

Every court decision has an official citation, which consists of the case name, followed by a series of letters and numbers. Case citations typically provide five critical pieces of information:

  • the name of the case;
  • the volume number of the reporter that published the case;
  • the abbreviated name of that case reporter;
  • the page number on which the text of the case begins;
  • the year the case was decided.

Court cases may be published by more than one publisher, so it is not unusual to see more than one citation appearing after the name of the case.

The first citation, the official citation, is the official reports for a particular court. The citations noted after the official cite are referred to as unofficial or parallel citations. The text of the judicial opinion is the same in all sources.

The Name of the Case

Case citations begin with the case name, and all legal cases are named according to the parties involved. When there are two parties involved, the case name will include the plaintiff or appellant’s last name, and an abbreviated version of the defendant or respondent’s last name. However, some case names do not follow that format, such case names that include the Latin legal terms “In re” or “Ex parte.”

With regards to criminal cases, the case name will begin with the state or government entity trying the case, since criminal charges are brought by the government rather than an individual.

Volume Numbers and Case Reporters

Volume numbers in case citations always immediately precede the abbreviated name of the court reporter in which a case has been published. A “reporter” or “report” is the name for the book in which court decisions are published in chronological order.

Many states publish their own official reporters, though there are also a number of regional reporters which publish court opinions from multiple states within the same region of the country.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions are officially published in the United States Reports, abbreviated as “U.S.” Parallel citations are also published in the Supreme Court Reporter, abbreviated “S.Ct”, as well as the United States Supreme Court Reports Lawyers Edition, abbreviated “L.Ed.” or “L.Ed. 2d.”

Judicial opinions decided by the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal are published in the Federal Reporter. There are three series of the Federal Reporter, the first of which is abbreviated “F”, the second is abbreviated “F.2d”, and the third is abbreviated “F.3d.” The third series of the Federal Reporter contains all new cases.

U.S. District Court decisions are published in the Federal Supplement, abbreviated “F. Supp.”, the Federal Supplement Second series, abbreviated “F. Supp. 2d,” or F. Supp. 3d., or in the Federal Rules of Decisions, cited as “F.R.D.”

Examples of Case Citations

Here are two examples of case citations with explanations as to how to read them. The well-known U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade may be cited as:

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

  • The case name begins with the names of the parties involved.
  • The number “410” refers to the volume number of the United States Reporter, abbreviated as “U.S”, in which this case was officially published.
  • The number “113” immediately following the abbreviation “U.S.” refers to the page number on which the text of the case begins.
  • After the first official citation, there are two additional parallel citations.
  • The first parallel citation begins with the number “93”, indicating the volume number of the Supreme Court Reporter, abbreviated “S.Ct.”, in which this case was also published.
  • The number “705” immediately following the abbreviation “S.Ct.” refers to the page number on which the text of the case begins.
  • The second parallel citation begins with the number “35” referring to the volume number of the United States Supreme Court Reports Lawyers 2ndEdition, abbreviated “L.Ed.2d”, in which the case was also published.
  • The number “147” immediately following the abbreviation “L.Ed.2d” references the page number on which the text of the case begins.
  • Last in the citation is the year in which the case was decided, 1973.

The Arkansas Supreme Court case Arkansas Women’s Political Caucus v. Riviere may be cited as:

Arkansas Women’s Political Caucus v. Riviere, 283 Ark. 463, 677 S.W.2d 846 (1984)

  • The case name begins with the names of the parties involved.
  • The number “283” refers to the volume number of the Arkansas Reports, abbreviated “Ark.”, in which this case was officially published.
  • The number “463” immediately following the abbreviation “Ark.” refers to the page number on which the text of the case begins.
  • The parallel citation begins with the number “677”, which refers to the volume number of the South Western Reporter 2nd Edition, abbreviated “W.2d”, in which the case was also published.
  • The number “846” immediately following the abbreviation “W.2d” references the page number on which the text of the case begins.
  • Last in the citation is the year in which the case was decided, 1984.

Court decisions are frequently cited in U.S. courts because they articulate the grounds of past judicial decisions, which in many instances, may be legally binding on current and future cases.

If you need to conduct legal research, check out these free legal research resources.

The information on this website is intended as general legal information only and should not form the basis of legal advice of any kind. Individuals seeking specific legal advice should consult a lawyer.

 

 

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