Explanation of Case and Statute Citations

How are legal authorities identified?

Legal authorities—judicial opinions, statutes, regulations, ordinances, and others— are identified by legal citations. When a lawyer cites or mentions a legal authority in a document filed before a court, he or she must provide the legal citation. The citation enables the court, other attorneys, and legal researches to identify and locate the legal authority.

Remember that the legal system relies on precedent or past legal authority. Judges care what courts have ruled in the past so that their rulings comport with existing law.

What is a judicial opinion?

A judicial opinion is a written document in which a judge or panel of judges explain the reasons for their rulings. Another way to describe a judicial opinion is as a written resolution of legal issues. Judicial opinions are important, as they serve as a guide—as precedent—for future decisions. For example, an opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court is very important because it serves as a guide to all other courts in the country, both state and federal. Lower courts view U.S. Supreme Court decisions as mandatory authority to follow.

Where are judicial opinions located?

Judicial opinions are located in sets of books called reporters. Most appellate court opinions are also available online. For example, U.S. Supreme Court opinions are located in the United States Reporters—a legal reporter published by the U.S. government—and also in the Supreme Court Reporter and the Lawyers Edition, reporters published by private publishing companies. U.S. Supreme Court opinions are also accessible in different locations online. Courts have their own individual websites, which are good places to find recent judicial opinions (see Appendix C).

What is a citation for a judicial opinion?

An example of a citation for a judicial opinion is Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 466 (1966). This citation consists of the name of the case and the reporter in which the case can be found. More specifically, a case citation includes:

• The name of the case

• The volume number of the reporter in which the case opinion appears

• The abbreviation for the reporter in which the case appears

• The beginning page number on which the judicial opinion begins

• In parentheses, the abbreviation for the court that decided the case if not apparent from the reporter and the year the case was decided

For example, the case name is Miranda v. Arizona. The case if found at volume 384 of the United States Reports beginning at page 466. The U.S. Supreme Court released this opinion in 1966. Another way to say it is—pick up volume 466 of the U.S. Reports, turn to page 466 and you will find the case Miranda v. Arizona.

Can you explain the elements of a lower court citation?

Yes, let's take the example of McIntyre v. Ballentine, 833 S.W.2d 52 (Tenn. 1992)—a famous decision in Tennessee where the state's high court adopted a system of comparative negligence (see the chapter on personal injury law for a discussion of comparative negligence).

Let's break down the elements of the legal citation:

Citation Element


Name of case:

McIntyre v. Ballentine

Volume number of reporter:


Reporter where case found:

Southwestern Reporter, abbreviated as S.W.2d (S.W.

for Southwestern Reporter, 2d. for 2nd series)

Beginning page # of opinion:


Court info and year:

Tenn. stands for Tennessee Supreme Court, and 1992

is the year the case was decided.

How does a person keep track of all the abbreviations and requirements for legal citations?

Good question. Lawyers are required to take a legal research and writing class, or classes, in law school. Instructors devote a course that often takes the entire school year to teach students the basics of legal research and writing. There are books that explain the rules for legal citation, including The Bluebook: A Uniform System of

Citation. It is called the Bluebook because it has a blue cover. As it says on its website, thelegalbluebook.com, the Bluebook "continues to provide a systematic method by which members of the profession communicate important information to one another about the sources and legal authorities upon which they rely in their work."

The Bluebook is not the only legal citation book. Two other popular legal citation books include: The University of Chicago Manual of Legal Citation—often called the maroon book because of its maroon cover—and Mary M. Prince's Bieber Dictionary of Legal Citations: A Reference Guide for Attorneys, Legal Secretaries, Paralegals and Law Students.

How do you cite a statute or law?

Statutes are cited differently than cases. Federal statutes or laws consist of three primary elements: (1) a title number; (2) abbreviation for the federal code; and (3) the section number. For example, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is an important federal civil rights statute; 42 refers to the title (Public Health and Welfare) of the U.S. Code where this statute is found; U.S.C. stands for United States Code (where federal laws are codified or arranged); and 1983 refers to a section number.

What are titles?

Statutory codes are topical compilations of statutes or laws. The United States Code, which contains a topical arrangement of federal laws, is divided into 50 basic titles. For example, title 2 is Congress; title 5 is Government Organization and Employees; title 11 is bankruptcy; and title 28 is Judiciary and Judicial Procedure. Thus, if you know that you are looking for a bankruptcy law, you would know that this particular law is found in Title 11 of the United States Code.

What do we mean by an annotated code?

Annotated codes are important because they contain not only the text of the various laws (in the code) but they also provide annotations that give information about different legal sources that mention or cite different laws. For example, if you look up 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States Code Annotated, you will find pages upon pages of citations to various judicial opinions that cite, mention, or explain the reach of this particular law. In other words, an annotated code allows a legal researcher to find both an applicable statute and perhaps some citations to cases that explain that statute or law.

How much legal information is available online now?

Quite a bit of legal information is available online. You can access the text of all U.S. Supreme Court opinions, for example. You can also find most appellate court decisions—state and federal—after a certain date. But you still cannot find many older lower court decisions online. Also, the vast majority of state and federal trial court opinions are still not available online for free. Most lawyers subscribe to an electronic database service—the two biggest are Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis—that provides access to nearly all legal authorities.

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