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Understanding Legal Case Citations

A legal citation is a reference to a legal authority where particular information, such as a case or statute, can be located. What can be confusing is the fact that there are many different sources and different ways to reference them. Legal citations are often confusing because they differ from references used in other types of research. here we attempt to put them into plain English.


Case Citations

Case citations are a legal way of referencing another case which may, or may not, be relevant to the case at hand. In opposing briefs, they are more an attempt to convince the court to adopt the particular line of reasoning that attorney, or pro se litigant, is trying to promote. It is best to cultivate the court case citations for pleadings rather than rely upon those of an attorney who may very likely didtort the case to the inters of the client of the attorney.

A case citation will have a volume number, a reporter and a page number. The volume number is the official "book" number for the published opinions. The title tells you which set of books. You would think the logical order would be the title, volume number and then the page but that is not the order they use.

    256 US 247 is read as:

  • 256 Volume number where the case appears
  • US Abbreviation for the title set of books reporting the case
  • 247 Page number on which the case begins

The above example tells you that it is a Supreme Court decision in volume 256 at page 247. Cases will be reported often in several different reporters. These additional citations are called parallel citations. Examples of parallel citations are:

-- United States Supreme Court Case --
491 U.S. 397
109 S. Ct 2533 105 L.Ed.2d 342

-- Michigan Supreme Court Case --
416 Mich. 63 330 N.W.2d 366

U.S. Supreme Court decisions are reported in three reporters listed in this example:
  • United States Supreme Court Reports (U.S. - the official government publication);
  • Supreme Court Reporter by West Publishing (S.Ct. - an unofficial reporter); and,
  • United States Supreme Court Reporter, Lawyer's Edition published by the Lawyers Cooperative Publishing Company (L.Ed.2d - another unofficial reporter).
They are also printed in US Law Week, a Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) publication and unofficial for court purposes.

NOTE: You only need to look at one of the four sources since each is reporting the same US Supreme Court decisions.


Case Example

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum v. Gentile Productions, 134 F.3d 749 (6th Cir, 1998)

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum v. Gentile Productions, 134 F.3d 749 (6th Cir, 1998)

  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum v. Gentile Productions or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum v. Gentile Productions
  • the parties' names; in the citation, names are underlined or in italics and are followed by a comma and a lower case "v." replaces "versus"

  • 134
  • Reporter volume number followed by a comma

  • F.3d
  • Reporter title (abbreviated ) followed by a comma

  • 749
  • The first page of the case in that volume [note: a second page number denotes the page on which the exact quote can be located. In this case, 749, 751 would mean the case begins on page 749 and the quote was on page 751.]

  • 6th Cir. 1998
  • The court and the year of decision is enclosed in parentheses and followed with a period [note: 6th Cir denotes the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. District courts are denoted by region, e.g., (C.D. Cal. 2008) which is the Central District of California.]

  • 2008 WL 2390037
  • This is a West Law citation.


Case Citation Titles

The title US or S. Ct. will denote the US Supreme Court.

F.1d or F.2d or F.3d denotes Courts of Appeals for the various circuits. They are all lumped together in these volumes based upon the date of the decision.

F. Supp. 1d or F. Supp. 2d or F. Supp. 3d denotes a published circuit court decision (as opposed to a Court of Appeals decision). Note the difference between F.2d (Court of Appeals) and F. Supp. 2d (Circuit Court).

353 Mass. 385 (1967) denotes a Massachusetts court. This example is the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

17 S.W.3d 721 (2000) denotes the Court of Appeals of Texas, Austin. It will also be cited as 17 S.W.3d 721 (TX 2000)


Statute Citation Example

17 U.S.C 106(a) (1976).

17 Number
U.S.C Code title abbreviated (in this case this is the United States Code)
106(a) (1976). Page/paragraph and date


Law Review Article Citation Example

Dan T. Coenen, The Constitutional Case, 75, Minn. L. Rev 1339, 1341 (1991).

Dan T. Coenen Author
The Constitutional Case Title of article
75 volume
Minn. L. Rev Title of law review abbreviated (Minnesota Law Review)
1339, 1341 Pages
(1991). Date of journal publication in parenthesis.


Lexis Nexis Example

Note that in this example Lexis/Nexis provides all parallel citations to this case.

BRIGHT v. LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCH. DIST.

L.A. No. 30555

Supreme Court of California

18 Cal. 3d 450; 556 P.2d 1090; 1976 Cal. LEXIS 364; 134 Cal. Rptr. 639; 2 Media L. Rep. 1175

Citations Decoded:

BRIGHT v. LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCH. DIST. (the case name of the current case by plaintiff and defendant)
L.A. No. 30555 (pending)
Supreme Court of California, 18 Cal. 3d 450 (Volme 18 of the California Reports, Third Series, page 450)
556 P.2d 1090 (Volume 556 of the Pacific Reporter, Second Series page 1090)
1976 Cal. LEXIS 364 (year and page in Lexis Cites for California)
134 Cal. Rptr. 639 (Volume 134 of the California Reporter, page 639, from West's)
2 Media L. Rep. 1175 (Volume 2 of the Media Law Reporter, page 1175, another BNA publication)


References within a court document:

id means "see previous". In some papers there may be a number of reference to a case. Rather than repeat the name of the case many times, id is used to refer back to the last cited case.

id at 357 means "see previous" at page 357

c.f. means "citing from" followed by a case name or an acadenic reference.

cert. denied or certiorari denied refers to an appeal to the Supreme Court that was refused by the Court.

inter alia means "among other things".

Once a case has been cited, such as

See CareFirst of Md., Inc. v. First Care, P.C., 434 F.3d 263, 267 (4th Cir.2006).
futher citations will either be id or shorten version of the case name like this: See CareFirst, 434 F.3d at 268.
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