Skip to Main Content

Citation Styles

legal citations guide banner

Legal Citation Basics

How To Read a Legal Citations

Typically a case decision citation includes:

  • the names of the lead parties (in most cases, the plaintiff/appellant versus the defendant/appellee),
  • a number representing the volume of the reporter
  • the abbreviated name of the reporter
  • the first page of the decision
  • in parentheses, the court abbreviation and the year the decision was issued.

The organization of this information depends on the rules of the Specific Court you are citing from, but the basic citation format is:

Case Name: Am. Geophysical Union v. Texaco, Inc., // Volume No.: 60 // Reporter Abbreviation: F.3d // 1st Page of Case: 913, // "Pinpoint" Page: 915 // open parentheses - Court: 2d Cir. // Decision Year: 1994 - close parentheses


When it comes to statutes, the base citation will look something like this:

Basic Statute Citaiton Example. Title: 17 // Code Abbreviation: U.S.C. // Section: ยง 107 // In parentheses - Date of Code Edition: 2012)

As with case citations, the exact statute citations will depend on a number of factors, such as whether it's a Federal or State statute, if you're including the name of the law, and so on.

Legal Terminology Definitions

Legal citations reference legal documents such as cases, statutes, codes, and so on. Here are some keywords which will help us better understand and use legal citations:

  • Reporters: court opinions gathered and published in chronological order. Even when found online, court opinions are still cited and organized by the print reporter system.
    • Official: government approved reporters ordered by jurisdiction. These reporters should be cited when submitting legal documents to the specific jurisdiction.
    • Unofficial: third party commercial publishers reproducing reporters for specific jurisdictions. Usually include extra editorial information, which can be useful during research. (NOT considered a legal authority.)
  • Case: Generally used in law to refer to the written decision of a court.

  • Case Law: All reported decisions within a jurisdiction. May consist of common law decisions as well as judicial decisions interpreting statutes, regulations, constitutions etc.

  • Code: The subject arrangement of the laws or regulations of a jurisdiction.

    • Annotated Code: A publication of all the laws of a jurisdiction organized by subject matter which contains research references that include summaries of cases or citations to secondary sources that discuss that particular law. Annotated codes only contain select case law interpreting the statute, not every case ever citing the statute.

    • Unannotated Code: A publication of all the laws of a jurisdiction organized by subject matter. No research references are included in these codes.

  • Statute: A law passed by a legislative body. Often also called laws and codes.

    • Federal Statute: Written laws passed by the United States Congress. Statutes are primary authority.

    • State Statute: Written laws passed by the state legislature. Statutes are primary authority.

  • Opinion: The written decision of a court.

    • Majority Opinion: An opinion joined in by more than half of the judges considering a given case.One judge writes the opinion when a majority of judges agree with the holding.

    • Minority Opinion: An opinion by one or more judges who disagree with the decision reached by the majority - also called a dissenting opinion.

    • Concurring Opinion: A judge who voted with the majority opinion, but writes separately because her reasoning is different.

    • Dissenting Opinion: A judge who writes a separate opinion where the reasoning and the holding are different from the majority.

    • Per Curiam Opinion: Literally "By the Court."  This happens when the court issues a unanimous opinion, typically on a controversial topic, so that no single author can be identified.

  • Opinions, unpublished: An opinion is considered published unless it is specifically designated as "unpublished."  The court typically designates an opinion as "unpublished" if it doesn't add anything new to the body of law. 

    • NOTE: Courts have different rules about whether they will accept citations to unpublished opinions.

  • Federal Circuit Courts: The appellate court level in the federal court system. There are 13.
  • Federal District Courts: The trial court level in the federal court system. There are 94.