When you make a legal argument, you should always back it up by citing the names of the cases you are referring to. Every decision in a case has an official “citation,” which is the case name, followed by a bunch of letters and numbers that tell you where you can find a copy of the decision. Case citation is a very picky and frustrating activity, but it is very important to making a legal argument. Before you worry about how to cite to a case, the first thing you need to deal with is finding a case.

1. Court Decisions

Reported Decisions
Court decisions are published in books called “Reporters” or “Reports.” All U.S. Supreme Court decisions are in the United States Reports, which is abbreviated “U.S.” They also are in the Supreme Court Reporter, abbreviated “S.Ct” and the United States Supreme Court Reports Lawyers Edition, abbreviated “L.Ed.” or “L.Ed. 2d.” These different reporters all have the same cases, so you can just use whichever version your prison law library has.

Decisions of the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal are in the Federal Reporter. As of 2010, there are three series of the Federal Reporter: the first series is abbreviated “F.” the second series is abbreviated F.2d, and the third series is abbreviated F.3d. All new cases are in the third series.

U.S. District Court decisions are in the Federal Supplement, abbreviated “F. Supp.” the Federal Supplement Second series, abbreviated “F. Supp. 2d,” or F. Supp. 3d. Others are in the Federal Rules of Decisions, cited as “F.R.D.”

How to Read a Case

When a judge decides a case, he or she writes a description of the facts of that case, the law the judge used to get to his or her decision, and the reason they decided one way or the other. When you first start reading cases, you may have trouble understanding them, but be patient, and follow these suggestions to get as much as possible from the case.

The Summary – Many times when you look up a case in a book, the first thing you will see under the name of the case is a short paragraph stating who won the case.

Key Number Links – Directly under the summary, you may see numbered paragraphs with headings and little pictures of keys. These paragraphs are there to help you with your research. They set out general rules of law that you will encounter in the case.

The Syllabus – The syllabus is a summary of the “holding” or decision in the case. It may help you get a sense of what the case is about, but be careful – it was not actually written by the Judge, and you cannot cite it on your brief.

The Facts – After the syllabus, you will see the name of the judge or judges who decided the case in capital letters, and the names of the attorney as well. After that comes the actual official opinion. Most judges start out an opinion by stating the facts – who sued who, over what. Read the facts carefully, you will need to use them if you want to show how the case is like or unlike your situation.

Legal Reasoning – Most of what you read in a case is legal reasoning. The judge will state general legal rules, or holdings from past cases, and explain them. This part of a case can be very complicated and difficult, but the more you read, the more you will understand.

The Holding – The holding is the actual decision in a case. After the judge goes through the facts and the legal reasoning, he or she will apply the law to the facts, and state the outcome of the case. It is important to figure out what the holding is, so you know whether the case hurts you, or helps you.

As we wrote earlier, every decision has an official “citation,” which is the case name, followed by a bunch of letters and numbers that tell you where you can find a copy of the decision. The citation also explains what court made the decision and in what year. For example, this is a typical Supreme Court citation:

Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483 (1969)

  • “Johnson v. Avery” is the name of the case. Usually, the case name comes from the last name of the person who brings the suit, and the last name of the person being sued. The name of the plaintiff always comes first at the trial level, but the names can switch order after that, depending on which party is appealing. You should always italicize or underline the case name.
  • “393” is the number of the volume of United States Reports in which you can find the case.
  • The “U.S.” indicates that the decision can be found in United States Reports.
  • “483” is the page number in volume 393 on which the decision begins.
  • “1969” is the year the decision was announced.

If you want to quote from a decision, or refer to reasoning used in the decision, you will also need to include the page number where your point appears in the decision. This is called a “pin cite” or “jump cite” and you put it between the page number the decision begins on and before the date of the decision. In the following example, “485” is the pin cite:

Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 485 (1969)

Sometimes a U.S. Supreme Court decision will be cited to all three sets of reports, like:

Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 89 S.Ct. 797, 21 L.Ed. 2d 718 (1969).

You can cite all three if you want, but it is usually not required. The “U.S.” citation is the important one. Do not give only a “S.Ct.” or L.Ed.” citation without also giving the U.S. citation, unless the decision has not yet been reported in U.S. or you cannot find it. If this happens, cite the case as: Johnson v. Avery, ___U.S.___, 89 S.Ct. 747, 21 L.Ed. 2d 718 (1969). If you have only S.Ct. or only L.Ed., put what you have after “___U.S.___.”

The “S.Ct.” stands for “Supreme Court Reporter” and the “L.Ed.” stands for “Lawyer’s Edition.” These books are supposed to be in your prison library and usually give the “U.S.” cite for each decision.

A typical Circuit Court citation is:

United States v. Footman, 215 F.3d 145 (1st Cir. 2000)

This decision is in volume 215 of the Federal Reporter, third series, starting on page 145. The information in parentheses tells you that this decision is from the First Circuit, and that it was decided in the year 2000.

A typical District Court citation is:

Bracewell v. Lobmiller, 938 F. Supp. 1571 (M.D. Ala. 1996)

This decision is in volume 938 of the Federal Supplement and starts on page 1571. It was issued in 1996 by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.

Unpublished Decisions
Not every district court or circuit court decision is reported. Some decisions are “unpublished,” which means they do not appear in the official reporters. Unfortunately, a lot of cases about prisoners are unpublished. Not all courts allow you to cite to unpublished cases, and they are very hard for prisoners to get. To find out whether or not you can use unpublished cases, look in your district court’s local rules.

A publication called U.S. Law Week, which may be in the prison law library, prints a few important decisions by various courts before those decisions appear in regular reports. You can use a Law Week citation until the decision appears in a reporter. Use the same general form as for reported case, but indicate the court, the case number on the court docket and the exact date of the decision (not just the year). For example:

Oswald v. Rodriguez, 40 U.S.L.W. 3597 (U.S. June 19, 1972) (No. 71-1369).

Outside of prison, most lawyers no longer use books to find opinions or do legal research.  Today, lawyers use one of two online services that simplify legal research, and make many unpublished opinions easily accessible.  These services are called LEXIS and Westlaw.  They cost a lot of money, and your prison probably does not give you access to them.  Hopefully, internet access to decisions will increase in the future.  LEXIS and Westlaw cites look like this.

Lucrecia v. Samples, No. C-93-3651-VRW, 1995 WL 630016 (N.D.Cal. Oct. 16, 1995)

Farmer v. Hawk, No. 94-CV-2274, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13630 (D.D.C. Sep. 5, 1996)

The number that appears after the case name, and starts with “No.” is the official docket number of the case.  As you learned in Chapter Three, every case gets a docket number as soon as the complaint is filed.  When you are citing an unpublished case, you need to include the docket number.  The next part is the LEXIS or Westlaw citation.  It includes the year the case was decided, and a special identification number created by Westlaw or LEXIS.  In the parenthesis you will find the abbreviation for the court that decided the case, and the date of the decision.  When you are citing a published opinion, you only need to include the year the decision issued.  For an unpublished decision, you should include the exact day.

When you want to use a case in a memorandum of law or a brief or any other legal document, you should put the case cite, as it appears in the examples above, at the end of every sentence that refers to a fact or a legal rule or a quote that comes from that case. Throughout this handbook, there are many examples that can help you see how this works. For instance, on page 19 in Chapter Three, we wrote:

“Courts have allowed censorship of materials that advocate racial superiority and violence against people of another race or religion. Stefanow v. McFadden, 103 F.3d 1466 (9th Cir. 1996); Chriceol v. Phillips, 169 F.3d 313 (5th Cir. 1999).”

We “cited” the two cases above because they support our statement about courts allowing censorship. Citing a case allows the reader to go look up the case for proof that what the writer has written is true.

Sometimes you also need to include more information about the case. When you refer to a decision which has been appealed, list all the decisions in the case and indicate what each court ruled. For example:

Gilmore v. Lynch, 319 F. Supp. 105 (N.D. Cal. 1970), aff’d sub nom Younger v. Gilmore, 404 U.S. 15 (1971).

The abbreviation “aff’d” stands for “affirmed.” This citation indicates that the U.S. Supreme Court “affirmed” or agreed with the decision of the District Court in the Gilmore case. This happened one year later, under a slightly different name, which is abbreviated “sub nom”. The name is different because Younger had replaced Lynch as Attorney General of California, and Gilmore – one of the prisoners who filed the suit – had his name second because he was now defending against Younger’s appeal of the district court decision in favor of the prisoners.

As explained above, you might want to cite a decision which has been reversed on appeal, if the part of the decision which helps you was not reversed. The citation would look like:

Toussaint v. McCarthy, 597 F. Supp. 1388 (N.D. Cal. 1984), aff’d in part, rev’d in part on other grounds, 801 F.2d 1080 (9th Cir. 1986).

The abbreviation “rev’d” stands for “reversed.” Here the case name was not changed on appeal, so you don’t have to include it a second time.

When you cite a circuit court decision, you should indicate if the Supreme Court has agreed to review the decision or has refused to review it, if that decision was made in the last three years. For example:

Roe v. Crawford, 514 F.3d 789 (8th Cir. 2008), cert. denied, __U.S. __, 129 S. Ct. 109 (2008).

“Cert” stands for the “writ of certiorari” that the Supreme Court issues when it decides to review lower court decisions. If the Supreme Court had decided to grant a writ of certiorari in Roe v. Crawford, the citation would read “cert. granted.”

Once you have cited the full name of a case once, you don’t have to cite it fully again. Instead, you can use a short form of the official cite. So, instead of writing Hershberger v. Scaletta, 33 F.3d 955 (8th Cir. 1994) over and over again, you can just write:

Hershberger, 33 F.3d at 960.

Just remember to cite the case in full the first time you use it. Notice that the last number, “960,” is the actual page of the case that you want to refer to, rather than the page on which the case starts. If you cite a case for a second time and you haven’t cited any other cases in between, you can use another, shorter, short form: “Id. at 960.” Id. is an abbreviation for the Latin word “idem” which means “same.”

You may see in a memo or an opinion “Hershberger v. Scaletta, supra at 960” or just “Hershberger v. Scaletta, supra.” “Supra” is Latin for “above.” It means that the full citation was given earlier.

You do not have to use words like “supra” and “id.” It is your choice how you want to write your citations. You will probably find it simpler to put the full case name and the full citation each time you refer to a case. This is perfectly fine. But you will need to know the fancy words because lawyers like to use them. Remember, whenever you don’t know what a term means, try to get a hold of Black’s Law Dictionary, Ballantine’s Law Dictionary, or any other law dictionary. We also have included a limited glossary at the end of the Handbook.

2. Legislation and Court Rules

Besides court decisions, you will also want to find and refer to laws passed by the U.S. Congress, like Section 1983. The main places to find federal statutes are in the United States Code (abbreviated U.S.C.) or the United States Code Annotated (abbreviated U.S.C.A.), which are supposed to be in every prison library. Both sets of books are organized in the same way, except that the “Code Annotated” version summarizes the main court decisions that interpret each statute. It also lists related law review articles and states the history of the statute. In using the Code or the Code Annotated, be sure to check for paperbound additions in the back of books. These additions update the material in that book.

Citations for statutes follow roughly the same form as citations to court cases. For example:

42 U.S.C. § 1983

refers to title 42 of the U.S. Code and section 1983 of that title. A “title” is a group of somewhat related laws which are collected together. One book of the Code or Code Annotated may contain several titles or only part of a title, depending on how big that title is.

The U.S. Code also includes the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Fed. R. Civ. P.) and the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (Fed. R. App. P.). These rules are published as an appendix to Title 42. The Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.) annotates each rule the same way it does each statute. It summarizes important court decisions which interpret the rule, etc. The correct way to cite a rule is: “Fed. R. Civ. P. [rule number]” or “Fed. R. App. P. [rule number].”

3. Books and Articles

Citations to legal treatises and law review articles follow the same general pattern as statutes and court decisions. For instance:

Betsy Ginsberg, Out With the New, In With the Old: The Importance Of Section 504 Of The Rehabilitation Act To Prisoners With Disabilities, 36 Fordham Urb. L.J. 713  (2009).

You can tell from this citation that Betsy Ginsberg wrote an article that appeared in volume 36 of the Fordham Urban Law Journal on page 713, and that it came out in 2009. You should always give the author’s full name and italicize the name of the article.

Citing a book is relatively easy. You write the author’s full name, the name of the book, the page you are citing too, and the year it was published:

Deborah L. Rhode, Justice and Gender 56 (1989)

4. Research Aids

Prison law libraries should include books which help you do legal research. The most important books for legal research are Shepard’s Citations, which we described above.  Some other important books are described below.

A “digest” has quotations from court decisions, arranged by subject matter. Every topic has a “key-number.” You look in the subject index to find the key number of your topic. Under that number you will find excerpts from important decisions. The last volume of each digest has a plaintiff-defendant table, so you can get the citation for a case if you only know the names of the parties.

The prison library is also supposed to have the Modern Federal Practice Digest (covering all federal court decisions since 1939) and West’s State Digest for the state your prison is in. The same key-number system is used in all the books put out by the West Publishing Company, including Corpus Juris Secundum (explained below), Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Supplement, and Federal Rules Decisions. Every decision in a West Company Reporter starts with excerpts or paraphrases of the important points in the decision and gives the key number for each point.

Your law library may include Corpus Juris Secundum, abbreviated “CJS.” CJS is a legal encyclopedia. It explains the law on each of the key-number topics and gives a list of citations for each explanation. Be sure to check pocket parts at the back of each book to keep up to date.

The explanations in CJS are not very detailed or precise. But they can give you a rough idea of what is happening and lead you to the important cases.

Encyclopedias and digests are good ways to get started on your research, but it usually is not very helpful to cite them to support arguments in your legal papers. Judges do not consider the opinion of a legal encyclopedia as a solid base for a decision.

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