Case Closed!

Judge gavelHeather Harper I Borderline Press I May 20, 2016

Have you ever found yourself reading an article which describes a lawsuit, only to find yourself glossing over the actual citation? Sure, we all skim at times to get to the point, but what if you want to understand what it means? Legal citation is too complex to be explained in just one article, but here is a brief guide to case citations that surface from time to time.

In order to understand legal citation for case law, it is important to be aware of the structure of the United States Court system. As Shrek says, “Ogres are like onions…they have layers”; well, the U.S. court the system is the same way. There are local courts, state courts, federal courts, appeals courts, and the United States Supreme Court (aka SCOTUS in social media feeds).

Most published legal cases will look something like this: John v. Doe, 94 F.3d 456 (6th Cir. 2001), which almost resembles some form of ancient Egyptian algebra, minus pi.  It can be explained simply enough, however.

First you have the names. This person or entity versus another person or entity; entity generally refers to a business, corporation, or governmental agency, but not always. The first name is the person/entity who brought the suit, called the plaintiff; the second name(s) refer to the defendant(s) in question. If the matter is under appeal, the plaintiff will be whoever lost in the original court’s decision.

The next portion of the case citation tells you where the information can be found if you wanted to look it up in the published digest system or official publications. The first number represents the volume number of the digest, the letter and number combination explains which digest to refer to, and the last number is the page you will find the case on.

Finally, the section found in the parenthesis explains where the case was most recently heard, and which court it was heard in. In the John v. Doe example, was heard in the 6th Circuit Court, which is a federal court, in 2001.

There are many more rules and exceptions than what is described above, but hopefully this will give you a little head start in grasping the basic format of legal citation in case law. For more detailed information on legal citation, check out Cornell Law School’s website; you can access it here.



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