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Legal Citations

A guide to deciphering those cryptic legal citations.

Definition of a Legal Citation

A citation (or cite) in legal terminology is a reference to a specific legal source, such as a constitution, a statute, a reported case, a treatise, or a law review article.  A standard citation includes first the volume number, then the title of the source, (usually abbreviated) and lastly, a page or section number.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This guide is not meant to provide guidance for correct legal citation format; rather, it is a basic guide to understanding the parts of a legal citation and a list of sources for looking up legal abbreviations. Be sure to follow the rules of your particular court for proper citation format.

Case Citations

Case citations designate the volume number of the reporter in which the case appears, the name of the reporter, the page on which the case begins, and the year the decision was rendered.  Thus, each citation is unique.  Cases, or judicial opinions, can be published by more than one publisher.  If this occurs, the case name may be followed by one or more “parallel citations.”  The official reporter is the one with whose publisher the court has contracted to publish the reports; any other citation is called “unofficial.”  (Sometimes a case will have only an unofficial citation, such as in the Federal Reporter; then the “unofficial” cite will be listed alone.)  The text of the opinions will be the same in the official or unofficial sources, but the unofficial may contain additional editorial features which differ from the official.
In California, the State Supreme Court cases are published officially in the California Reports, series 1-4; the Court of Appeals cases are officially published in the California Appellate Reports, series 1-4.  Unofficial reports are published by West; Supreme Court and Appellate Court decisions are published together in the West’s California Reporter, series 1, 2 & 3.  The Supreme Court decisions are also published in the Pacific Reporter, series 1, 2 & 3. 

Here are examples of citations for California:

Federal cases are cited in the same format as California cases.  For United States Supreme Court cases, the official reports, United States Reports, (abbreviated “US”) are published by the U.S. Government.  There are two parallel citations for Supreme Court cases: those published by West in the Supreme Court Reporter are abbreviated “S.Ct.”; those published by LexisNexis, the United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers’ Edition, are abbreviated “L.Ed.” or “L.Ed. 2d”  Court of Appeals cases, published only in West’s Federal Reporter, are abbreviated “F.,” “F. 2d.” or “F. 3d.”  Federal District Court cases are published only in West’s Federal Supplement, abbreviated “F. Supp.” or “F. Supp. 2d”  

Code Citations

Citations to California Codes do not begin with numbers; instead, the title of the code name is followed by the section number, the publisher, and the date of the volume (not the date the individual code section was enacted).  Parallel cites are not used for the code, since there is no official code for California.  The version of the unofficial code used (Deering’s or West) is indicated in the date portion of the citation.

Citations to the United States Code follow the same general format as cases; however, the first number refers to the title of the United States Code rather than a volume number, and the second number refers to the section number of the code rather than the page number.  Parallel cites are not used for the code, since the numbering is uniform for both official and unofficial codes.  The unofficial codes are designated by their own abbreviations, U.S.C.A. (West) and U.S.C.S. (Lexis).