Q. How do I read a legal citation?


Case Citations

Case citations provide the essential information needed to locate an opinion in a published case reporter.  A case citation is composed of the names of the parties involved in the case, the volume number of the case reporter, the abbreviation for the case reporter, the page number on which the case opinion begins and the year that the opinion was rendered. For example:

Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 843 (1954)

In this example, the names of the parties involved are Brown (plaintiff) and the Board of Education of Topeka (defendant).  The opinion was published in volume number 347 of the United States Reports (the official case reporter of the United States Supreme Court abbreviated U.S.) and begins on page 843.  The opinion was rendered by the United States Supreme Court in 1954.

Code Citations 

Once legislatures pass laws, the laws are submitted to the jurisdiction's legislative service bureau where they are rearranged by subject and integrated into the code of laws.  Tip: A code is a collection of laws organized by subject. 

A citation of a Federal statute is composed of the title number (subject) of the code, the abbreviation for the United States Code publication and the section number in the code where the statute of interest begins. For example:

15 U.S.C.A. § 1701 (2011).

In this example, the statute appears in Title 15, Commerce and Trade, in the United States Code Annotated (published by West Publishing Company, abbreviated as U.S.C.A.), begins at section number 1701, and was enacted or last amended in 2011.

States vary in the way they organize--or codify--their statutes.  Some states follow the arrangement of the Federal statutes and use numbered "titles" and section numbers while others use the subject categories and section numbers.  Tip: Familiarize yourself with your home state's code and the format of code citations.

U.S. Supreme Court Briefs - Examples of Legal Citations

United States v. Arizona, Docket No., 11-182 (Argument date April 25, 2012)

There are a variety of legal citation styles including Bluebook and ALWD.  In addition, many jurisdictions have rules about citation format that may vary from these standard styles.  Using briefs filed with the United States Supreme Court that include citations to both Federal and state materials can serve as models for creating legal citations.  Below are links to two briefs filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Last Updated Nov 25, 2019
  • Views 81
  • Answered By Dennis Johnson, CJ, LE, & Paralegal Librarian

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