In the U.S. legal system, judicial opinions are probably the most frequently cited category of legal material. The articulated grounds of past judicial decisions are, in many instances, binding precedent for currently litigated matters. Under other circumstances, they are "persuasive" authority. In either event, if on point, they should be cited. In the context of legal citation, judicial opinions are commonly referred to as "cases" and organized collections of opinions are called "law reports" or "case reports." Most cited "cases" are opinions of appellate courts; however, trial court rulings on questions of law do on occasion produce decisions lawyers may wish to cite, despite their limited force as precedent.
Prior to the era of electronic information dissemination, many courts that produced large numbers of legal opinions selected only a fraction of them for "publication" in law reports. The remaining "unpublished cases" were, as a practical matter, unavailable for citation. The appearance of online systems ready, even eager, to pick up and distribute "unpublished" decisions forced courts to be clearer about the status of decisions they view as merely involving the routine application of settled law. See § 2-250.
Since the decisions of American courts generally deal with multiple issues and tend to be lengthy, recounting pre-litigation facts and procedural events of limited relevance to the points for which they might be cited, it is rarely enough simply to cite the case. Under most circumstances, a full case citation should include a reference to a specific portion or portions of the opinion. A reference that merely directs the reader to a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and no more has a greater likelihood of frustrating than persuading. It is analogous to route directions that identify the city or neighborhood but fail to furnish a complete street address.
The relevant citation principles follow; section 3-200 provides both basic examples and sample case citations from all major U.S. jurisdictions.
For a quick start introduction or review, there is also a companion video tutorial, “Citing Judicial Opinions ... in Brief”:
It runs 8.5 minutes.
Principle: The core of a case citation consists of four elements:
2-210(a) Examples Window (restore)
Element (a) - The parties' names (often referred to as the "case name" or less frequently the "title," "style," or "caption" of the case) «e.g.»
2-210(b)(1) Examples Window (restore)
Element (b) - At least one retrieval ID or address for the case (often itself referred to as the "cite or "citation") «e.g.» consisting of
If the reference is to a portion of the opinion (as in most instances it should be), the paragraph number or numbers of that portion (with a medium-neutral citation) or the page number or numbers of that part should follow the case retrieval ID or address, set off by a comma. (Citations to one or more specific point or points in an opinion are commonly referred to as "pinpoint" or "jump" citations.) «e.g.»
§ 2-210(b)(2) Examples Window
In some situations only one ID or reporter citation is required. In others, two or more should be provided in "parallel" i.e., in succession separated by commas «e.g.».
2-210(c) Examples Window (restore)
Element (c) The date «e.g.»
2-210(d) Examples Window (restore)
Element (d) The court «e.g.»
Point 1: Whether to use parallel case citations and, if not, which citation to use is a subject on which court rules often speak. The practice set out here is consistent with most of them, although a few state rules call for citations of decisions from other jurisdictions to include both an official reporter reference, if any, and a West regional reporter reference. The rules of a few others allow citation to the state’s official reports without a parallel citation to the regional reporter. See § 7-500.
Point 2: A number of state courts reject the practice of including "Ct." when abbreviating their intermediate appellate courts. In Alaska, for example, the abbreviation used for the state court of appeals is "Alaska App." rather than "Alaska Ct. App."
Most case citations refer to opinions that have already appeared in established print reporters and their conformed electronic counterparts. Opinions for which that is not true either because they are very recent or because the court or publisher of the relevant reporter did not consider the decision important enough for such dissemination call for alternative identification. The challenge in such a situation is to furnish the reader sufficient information to enable retrieval of the document from one or more specialized sources. (This is one of the problems addressed by medium-neutral citation systems. See § 2-230.) The following alternatives can be used. While they are listed in order of traditional preference, the ultimate choice should be made in terms of the intended readers' likely access. (Before citing a decision that is not "published" because of the court's own judgment about its limited precedential importance, be sure to consult the court's rules. See § 2-250.)
2-220(1) Examples Window (restore)
Alternative 1: With cases available in a print looseleaf service or an electronic equivalent, the minimum ID or address (following the parties' names (§ 2-210(a)) consists of:
Alternative 2: With cases available in electronic format but not yet in final form, the minimum ID or address (following the parties' names (§ 2-210(a)) consists of:
¡But see § 2-225(1)!
Alternative 3: With cases available only from the court in slip opinion, the minimum address (following the parties' names (§ 2-210(a)) consists of:
¡But see § 2-225(2)!
2-225 Examples Window (restore)
Point 1: Some courts omit the docket number from citations to cases that are in LEXIS or Westlaw. While that saves a modest amount of space, inclusion of the docket number facilitates access to the decision by those using another electronic source, whether it be a competing commercial online system or the court's own Web site «e.g.».
Point 2: When the decision is certain to appear in an established reporter but has not yet been published, some courts include a skeletal print citation with three underlined spaces taking the place of the missing volume and page numbers. That practice makes sense only when the citing text will, at some later point, be revised to fill in the gaps «e.g.».
In 1996, the American Bar Association approved a resolution recommending that courts adopt a uniform public domain citation system "equally effective for printed case reports and for case reports electronically published on computer disks or network services" and laying out the essential components of such a medium-neutral system (see § 1-500). The American Association of Law Libraries had previously gone on record for "vendor and media neutral" citation and has since issued a Universal Citation Guide that details an approach consistent with that urged by the ABA. An increasing number of jurisdictions have adopted citation schemes embodying some or all of the elements recommended by these national bodies. North Dakota is representative. Its court rules state in relevant part:
When available, initial citations must include the volume and initial page number of the North Western Reporter in which the opinion is published. The initial citation of any published opinion of the Supreme Court released on or after January 1, 1997, contained in a brief, memorandum, or other document filed with any trial or appellate court and the citation in the table of cases in a brief must also include a reference to the calendar year in which the decision was filed, followed by the court designation of "ND", followed by a sequential number assigned by the Clerk of the Supreme Court. A paragraph citation should be placed immediately following the sequential number assigned to the case. Subsequent citations within the brief, memorandum or other document must include the paragraph number and sufficient references to identify the initial citation.
N.D. R. CT Rule 11.6 (b).
The Rule supplies examples, e.g.:
For decisions of the North Dakota Court of Appeals, the formula is the same with the substitution of "ND App" for "ND." In jurisdictions adopting such a vendor- and medium-neutral citation scheme, that scheme should be used, together with one or more parallel reporter citations as may, indeed, be required by court rule or local practice.
While the formats and other details vary slightly, several other jurisdictions have implemented case citation schemes employing the same basic structure case name, year, court, sequential number, and (within the opinion) paragraph number or numbers. In addition to North Dakota these include Colorado, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. In 2009 Arkansas began to designate its appellate decisions in this way, while retaining page numbers within the court-released pdf file as the means for pinpoint cites. Four other states, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and, most recently, Illinois, have adopted medium-neutral citation systems, but along the significantly different lines noted below. At the federal level, the progress has, to date, been minimal. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit began to apply medium-neutral citations to its own decisions in 1994, but it has never directed attorneys to use them or employed them itself in referring to prior decisions that have appeared in the Federal Reporter series. Among district courts, the District of South Dakota appears to stand alone. Between 1996 and 2009 some, although not all, of its judges applied paragraph numbers and case designations in the format "2008 DSD 6" to their decisions and used the system in citations to them.
Ohio's case numbering approach operates across the entire state court system rather than court by court, with the result that successive decisions of the state supreme court may be numbered 3957 and 3995. (These system-wide numbers are assigned by the state's reporter of decisions.) Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi use the docket number as the case ID rather than generating a new one based on year and decision sequence. In addition, Louisiana, like Arkansas, uses slip opinion page numbers rather than paragraph numbers for pinpoint citation. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit does the same.
Most jurisdictions adopting a medium-neutral system have done so prospectively only. Citations to cases that pre-date the change must still employ reporter volume and page numbers. Two states, however, have retrofitted all past reported decisions with neutral citations and paragraph numbers. The court rules of one of them, Oklahoma, strongly encourage the use of the print-independent citations for those older cases, and the state’s appellate courts model the practice. In New Mexico the neutral citation system has, since 2013, been required for citations to opinions dating all the way back to 1852.
2-240 Examples Window (restore)
The core of a case citation includes at least two items that communicate by their absence. In other words, a case citation is read with the expectation that if certain things have occurred they will be reported as additional elements of a reference. Citations that are silent on these subjects are taken as representing that those facts are absent.
A citation consisting only of the core items represents that a clear holding of a majority of the court stands for the proposition with which the writer has associated it. It also represents that there have been no legal proceedings in the case occurring after the cited opinion that affect its authority. Finally, with a court that releases both "published" and "unpublished" or "non-precedential" decisions, in the absence of any indication otherwise, the citation of a decision represents that it has been designated for publication.
Principle 1: If the citation is to a dissenting, concurring, or plurality opinion or to dictum, that fact should be reported in separate parentheses following the date «e.g.».
Principle 2: If there have been one or more subsequent actions in the case cited, citations to those actions should be reported following the core items, preceded by an abbreviation indicating the nature of the action (§ 4-200) «e.g.». However, denials of certiorari by the U.S. Supreme Court or of similar discretionary appeals by other courts need not be reported unless they are recent (within the past two years) or otherwise noteworthy.
Principle 3: If the deciding court releases both "published" and "unpublished" or "nonprecedential" decisions and the latter carry less weight, decisions of that category should have the characterization given them by the court placed in parentheses following the date «e.g.». That is unnecessary with U.S. Court of Appeals decisions cited to West's Federal Appendix Reporter since it contains only "unpublished" decisions. Before citing an unpublished decision, however, see § 2-250.
Electronic distribution of judicial opinions has given wide access to decisions that the issuing courts did not view as important or precedential. A court's withholding of such decisions from print publication once effectively limited dissemination, but no longer. While § 2-220 outlines the format to use in citing "unpublished" cases, court rules may well instruct that decisions the court has affirmatively designated not to be published should not be cited at all (or at least not unless they bear directly on a subsequent matter as, for example, through res judicata). This may be true even if a decision has in fact been published in print. Since 2001, that has been the case with many U.S. Court of Appeals "unpublished" decisions because of West's Federal Appendix Reporter. Before you cite a decision that the deciding court has labeled "unpublished" or "nonprecedential," you should consult that court's rules on this point.