Legal Research and
Citation Style in USA

Copyright 2000, 2004 by Ronald B. Standler

Table of Contents

1. Sources of Legal Materials in USA
            statutes and regulations
            U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts
            state courts
            secondary sources
2. Citation of Court Opinions in the USA
3. Citation of Statutes and Regulations
4. Bluebook format for citing secondary sources
            Alternatives to the Bluebook
5. Legal writing style
            out-of-place technical jargon


The format for citations to legal materials is different from the format for scholarly citations to books and periodicals in general. This handout is a terse guide to legal citation in the USA.

The generally accepted style manual for legal citations in the USA is the Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, which is published by the editors of four prestigious law reviews at Columbia University, Harvard, Univ. of Pennsylvania, and Yale Law Schools. A copy of the Bluebook can be purchased in any law school bookstore. A comprehensive set of rules from the Bluebook is available on the Internet from Peter W. Martin at Cornell Law School. In contrast, this handout here contains a terse set of rules that generally agrees with the Bluebook, but does not contain all of the fine points and options in the Bluebook.

Opinions of some courts use a different format from the Bluebook, but these alternative citation formats contains the same information. Be aware that citations in annotated statutes and other law books may use a different bibliographic format from the Bluebook. Furthermore, the proper format according to the Bluebook changes with time, so old sources (both cases and law review articles) do not use the modern format for citation.

1. Sources of Legal Materials in USA

Statutes and Regulations in the USA

The U.S. Government publishes each statute enacted by the U.S. Congress in U.S. Statutes at Large.

Except for doing historical research, a more convenient way to access federal statutes is to use the U.S. Code, which groups the original statute and all subsequent amendments together in one place. All statutes from the federal government are published by West in the United States Code Annotated. This Code is divided into fifty "titles":
15 is for Commerce and Trade, including trademark statutes
17 is Copyrights
18 is for all federal criminal statutes
26 is the Internal Revenue Code, which is the federal tax law
35 is for Patents
47 is for communications law: telephone, radio/television, etc.
Each "title" may fill multiple volumes on a bookshelf.

The regulations issued by agencies of the federal government, in order to implement law expressed in the statutes, is published in the Code of Federal Regulations.

In addition, each state has its own collection of statutes and regulations.

One frequently sees citations in opinions of state courts to decisions from other states, as the common law (i.e., judge-made law) does import rules from other states. In contrast, statutes of other states are irrelevant, because the only statutes that apply are the statutes in the state whose law is being applied. However, occasionally judges look to court opinions from other states in interpreting a word or phrase in a statute.

Reporters for Opinions of Federal Courts

The U.S. Government publishes U.S. Reports that contains the official version of all of the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

West publishes:
Lawyer Cooperative Publishing Company, now owned by Lexis, publishes the Lawyer's Edition of the U.S. Supreme Court opinions.

West's Reporters for Opinions of State Courts

There are seven regional reporters:

Atlantic: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine

North Eastern: New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana

North Western: Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa

Pacific: Kansas, Oklahoma, and all states in and west of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico

South Eastern: Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia

Southern: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana

South Western: Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas

In addition to these regional Reporters, West publishes These two Reporters are not just extracts from the regional Reporters (i.e., Pacific for California and North Eastern for New York), but contain occasional opinions from other courts that are not found in the corresponding regional Reporters.

A few observations on the West regional reporter system:

misleading state court names

The highest state court in New York State is called the "Court of Appeals".
The trial courts in New York State are called the "Supreme Court".
The intermediate courts in New York State are called "Supreme Court, Appellate Division".
Beware of this misleading nomenclature!

In the federal courts, the Courts of Appeals are intermediate courts, between the trial courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. But in both New York and Maryland, their state Court of Appeals is the highest state court.

In most states, the Superior Court is a trial court, which handles larger cases than the ordinary trial court. However, the Pennsylvania Superior Court is an intermediate appellate court, between the trial courts and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

parallel citations

In addition to these regional reporters from West Publishing, many states publish their own opinions in an official state reporter. A law library will typically have the official state reporter of the state in which the library is located, but not the official state reporters of distant states. The West regional reporters are the standard source for finding opinions of courts in the USA. Nonetheless, one often finds parallel citations to both West's regional reporter and the official state reporter, particularly in Briefs submitted to that state's court.

Similarly, one often sees citations to opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court that cite in parallel to three different sources:
  1. the official U.S. Reports,
  2. West's Supreme Court Reporter (abbreviated "S.Ct."), and
  3. Lawyer Cooperative Publishing Company's Lawyer's Edition.
I prefer a citation only to U.S. Reports, if available; otherwise I only cite to S.Ct. The Lawyer's Edition includes the pagination to the other two editions.

secondary sources

The law in the USA is only expressed in constitutions, statutes, and opinions of appellate courts, which are known as primary sources. Secondary sources collect and explain rules of law from the primary sources.

There are several secondary sources commonly used by attorneys:
  1. American Law Reports, abbreviated "A.L.R.", contains annotations on a particular topic, which list the important cases in state and federal courts on that topic, along with a terse synopsis of the facts of the case and the judge's ruling. If one can find a relevant annotation in ALR, this may be a quick way of grasping the legal principles. Annotations in ALR are not commonly cited, except as authority for a statement of a legal rule in the majority of jurisdictions. Do not look for advocacy of a change in law in ALR, because ALR only reports what the law is.

  2. American Jurisprudence, abbreviated "Am.Jur.", is a legal encyclopedia that is relatively easy to read. It's a good starting point for someone unfamiliar with a particular area of law. Am.Jur. is not commonly cited in either law review articles or court opinions.

  3. Restatements of the Law, is an authoritative source, which summarizes the result of many reported court cases in the USA. The Restatements are written by a large committee of legal scholars, eminent litigators, and judges. The Restatements function as a statutory codification of the common law, i.e., law made by judges' decisions. In contrast to ALR and Am.Jur., the Restatements are commonly cited in scholarly articles and opinions of courts.

  4. Treatises written by law professors and other respected authorities. Examples include:
    William L. Prosser, TORTS, (4th ed. 1971).
    Arthur Linton Corbin, CONTRACTS, § 1374 (1962).

  5. Articles in law reviews. Most law reviews are published by a law school. A few law reviews are published by professional societies, such as the American Bar Association. Articles often advocate change(s) in law, which need to be distinguished from the current law.

  6. Since the year 1941, West publishes U.S. CODE CONGRESSIONAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE NEWS, (abbreviated "U.S.C.C.A.N."), which includes the legislative history of statutes passed by the U.S. Congress. Such material is useful in understanding why a statute was passed, and possibly useful in interpreting words or phrases in the statute.

2. Citation of Court Opinions in the USA

The general form consists of a series of information in the following format for example:
Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 118 (1973).
U.S. v. Carroll Towing Co., 159 F.2d 169 (2dCir. 1947).
Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., 162 N.E. 99 (N.Y. 1928).
Ybarra v. Spangard, 154 P.2d 687 (Cal. 1944).
name of the parties
The full name of the case at the trial court is always in the format Plaintiff v. Defendant in civil cases and Government v. Defendant in criminal cases. Some appellate courts (e.g., the U.S. Supreme Court) give the name as Appellant v. Appellee, which may be the reverse of the order of names at the trial court.

Note that the names of the parties are always italicized when referring to the opinion of the court in their case. See my further remarks below.

In criminal cases where the government is formally listed as, for example, "People of California", omit "People of", or "State of", and use only the name of the state (e.g., California).

Omit first and middle names of people.

Omit the name of the second and subsequent plaintiffs and defendants, omit "et. al.", and omit alternative names for parties (e.g., "aka", "dba" "also known as" and "doing business as").

volume number
When the volume number would be greater than 999, a second series is begun, and "2d" added to the name of the reporter. Similarly, when the volume number in the second series would be greater than 999, a third series is begun, and "3d" added to the name of the reporter.

name of reporter
Note that the name of the reporter is in regular font, neither underlined nor italicized, even though it is the title of a book. This is a departure from usual scholarly bibliographic format.

The name of the reporter is always abbreviated when citing a case. The proper abbreviations follow:
U.S. Reports, abbreviated "U.S."
West's Supreme Court Reporter, abbreviated "S.Ct."
Federal Reporter, abbreviated "F."
Federal Supplement, abbreviated "F.Supp."
Federal Rules Decisions, abbreviated "F.R.D."

Atlantic, abbreviated "A."
North Eastern, abbreviated "N.E."
North Western, abbreviated "N.W."
Pacific, abbreviated "P."
South Eastern, abbreviated "S.E."
Southern, abbreviated "S."
South Western, abbreviated "S.W."

West's California Reporter, abbreviated "Cal.Rptr."
West's New York State Reporter, abbreviated "N.Y.S."

page number of first page of the opinion
[optional] comma followed by the specific page number where a quotation or particular holding is found.

location and level of court
This information may be omitted for citations to the U.S. Supreme Court, since it is obvious from the name of the reporter (e.g., U.S. or S.Ct. or L.Ed.).

For opinions of a U.S. Court of Appeals, include the circuit number (e.g., "2dCir." or "9thCir.").

For opinions of federal trial courts, include the district. Some states have only one district (e.g., "D.Mass.") while other states may have two or three districts (e.g., "S.D.N.Y." for Southern District of New York State).

For opinions of state supreme courts, use an abbreviation for the name of the state (e.g., "Cal." for California and "N.Y." for New York).

For opinions of intermediate state appellate courts (i.e., courts between the trial court and state supreme court) use the abbreviation for the state followed by "App." (e.g., "Cal.App." for California). (This rule is a little too terse and oversimplified: the precise form is given in Table 1 of the Bluebook.)

year opinion was issued or published
Note that there is no comma between the name of the court and the year of the opinion.

The citation to a single case always ends with a period.
When one mentions a rule of law and cites to more than one case in which the rule is stated, the individual cases are separated by a semicolon, with a period after the last case in the citation.
As stated in the Introduction to this handout, the proper format according to the Bluebook changes with time. One older form placed the identification of the court and the year of the opinion immediately after the name of the parties, for example:
U.S. v. Carroll Towing Co., (2dCir. 1947) 159 F.2d 169.
I have put a line through this example, so students will not follow this obsolete example.

short form of citation

After the full citation has been given at least once in the preceding five citations, or after the case has been discussed by name in the text, the case may be referred to by the name of one party. In picking that one name, never pick the name of a government (e.g., U.S., California, ...), never pick the name of a government official (e.g., Janet Reno, being sued in her official capacity as Attorney General), and avoid choosing a frequent litigant (e.g., NAACP). My personal preference in civil cases is to pick the name of the plaintiff at the trial court level, who may be either the appellant or appellee on appeal, unless the plaintiff has a common name like "Smith" or "Jones" or unless the plaintiff is anonymous (e.g., "Doe"). In criminal cases, one always uses the name of the defendant as the short name of the case.

The short form of the citation has the following format:
Palsgraf, 162 N.E. at 100.
In this example, one cites a quotation or holding or fact that is located at page 100, without mentioning the first page number of the opinion.

citing an opinion that was later appealed

One must cite not only the opinion from which the quotation or holding was taken, but also cite the results (e.g., affirmed or reversed) of each appellate court that later considered the same case. This subsequent history of the case is important, because it strengthens the significance of the holding if affirmed, or vitiates the significance of the holding if reversed. It is a serious error to cite the opinion of a lower court that was later reversed by an appellate court, without explicitly mentioning the reversal, because the lower court's holding is no longer good law.

There are three common indicators of subsequent history:
  1. aff'd for affirmed
  2. rev'd for reversed
  3. cert. den. for cases appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but which that Court declined to hear. This declining to hear may be an indication that the U.S. Supreme Court not only agreed with the lower court's opinion, but also saw no interesting legal issue worthy of discussion.
There are several less common indicators of subsequent history:
  1. aff'd without opinion when no published opinion is issued with the appellate court's decision
  2. overruled by when the rule is changed in a subsequent case with different parties
  3. rev'd on other grounds when the decision in that particular case was reversed, but without changing the particular rule of law that is cited. (Many cases involve more than one issue, so the decision of a lower court can be affirmed on one issue and reversed on another issue.)
  4. on remand when a trial court again considers the case after the ruling of appellate court(s). This is generally the final disposition of the case.
The full list of explanatory phrases is in Table 9 of the Bluebook.

Note that if one cites the opinion of the highest court to hear a case, then one does not also need to cite the lower courts that heard the same case. One must cite only subsequent history, not previous history. For example, one may cite a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, or a state supreme court opinion that was not appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, without mentioning any of the previous history.

My general advice is to ignore the prior opinions, unless the case is really important: either it makes a new rule of law or it contains a holding that is unfavorable to your position. My experience is that reading the prior opinions of a case often provides facts that were omitted from later opinions, and those omitted facts sometimes change my view of the final decision.

If I am only citing a fact that was mentioned in the opinion of a lower court (but not repeated in the opinion of a subsequent court hearing the same case), I generally do not give the subsequent history in that one citation, provided that a citation including subsequent history is located nearby. My practice is a departure from the accepted rule, but I think it makes sense.

citing a dissenting opinion

If one quotes from a dissenting opinion, one must indicate in the citation that the source is only a dissenting opinion, which is not law. One puts the name of the judge or justice who wrote the dissenting opinion plus the word "dissenting" in parenthesis at the end of the citation. For example:
Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 156 (1983)(Brennan, J., dissenting).

Generally, one avoids quoting from dissenting opinions, unless one is arguing for a change in the law.

citing an unreported opinion

Unreported opinions are not law, but may be persuasive authority.

The format is the same as for a reported case, except the volume number and name of the reporter is replaced with a citation to the electronic database. For example:
1991 WL 55402, at *3
cites a case available in WESTLAW but not in published reporters. This particular example was the 55402th item added to the WESTLAW computer database in 1991, and the citation is to page *3. If one is citing the whole case, then one would omit , at *3 because every case in an electronic database begins at page *1, there is no need to mention the first page number.

In January 2001, West began publishing the Federal Appendix, which includes the opinions that were not selected by the U.S. Courts of Appeals for publication in the Federal reporter. Citations to this source are in the same format as citations to regular reported cases, the name of the volume is always abbreviated as "Fed.Appx."

One can cite any credible source in an essay, but local rules of courts may prohibit citing to unpublished or unreported cases in a Brief filed in that court.

string cites

Sometimes one will cite more than one item to support a proposition, in what is called a "string cite". There is a rigid style for the order of the citations:
  1. Constitutions
    1. U.S. Constitution
    2. State Constitutions, arranged alphabetically by state
    3. constitutions of foreign nations
    4. charters of the United Nations and other international organizations
  2. Statutes
    1. U.S. federal statutes
    2. federal rules of evidence or procedure
    3. state statutes
    4. state rules of evidence or procedure
  3. Case Law
    1. U.S. Supreme Court
    2. U.S. Court of Appeals, and within this category: by order of the Circuit — First Circuit cases appear first, Eleventh Circuit cases appear last.
    3. U.S. District Court, and within this category: by alphabetical order of the states.
    4. State court cases, arranged by alphabetical order of the state. Within each state, that state's supreme court decisions appear first, decisions of intermediate appellate courts next, and decisions of trial courts appear last.
  4. Secondary materials
    1. Restatements of the Law
    2. Treatises (e.g., Prosser & Keeton, TORTS (5th ed. 1984);   Corbin, CONTRACTS)
    3. Articles in Law Reviews

Within each of the above categories of case law, the most recent case appears first, the oldest case appears last.

The organizing principle is that the strongest authority appears first. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court appears before other courts, because it is the highest court in the USA. Similarly, recent cases are more authoritative than a musty old case that may have been ignored for tens of years, but never overturned.

The above order for string cites is from the Bluebook, but I do not like this rule and I do not follow this rule in my essays that are posted at my websites. Personally, I favor a strict chronological order, with the oldest case first, to clearly show the historical evolution of the law. Old cases are not necessarily "musty" — citing an old case shows that the law is well established, and not some recent quirk.

A string cite as a single-spaced, fine-print footnote is useful for citing authorities to support an assertion that is commonly known amongst attorneys and judges. Because such string cites are difficult-to-read, I prefer to display a string cite as an indented list in the text (not as a footnote), with a blank line clearly separating each case. For example:
There is a long line of cases on Heckler's Veto:
  1. Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949) (speaker was arrested to prevent disturbance by crowd of approximately 1000 protesters);

  2. Edwards v. Louisiana, 372 U.S. 229 (1963);

  3. Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536 (1965);

  4. Brown v. Louisiana, 383 U.S. 131 (1966) (The first use by the U.S. Supreme Court of the phrase "heckler's veto" is in footnote 1 at page 133.);

  5. Tinker v. Des Moines, 258 F.Supp. 971 (S.D.Iowa 1966), aff'd, 383 F.2d 988 (8thCir. 1967), rev'd, 393 U.S. 503, 508-509 (1969) (Fear of a disturbance in school was not adequate reason for school principals to forbid pupils to wear black armbands, as a symbol of their opposition to the war in Vietnam.);

  6. Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518 (1972);

  7. Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169 (1972);

  8. Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123 (1992).
Putting only one case per element in the indented list, and putting a blank line between elements is especially helpful when one also cites earlier opinions in the same case, as I did above in the above-cited Tinker case.

3. Citation of Statutes and Regulations


The general form for federal statutes and regulations consists of a series of information in the following format, for example:
17 U.S.C. § 102.
title number

name of statute or regulation
Note that the name of the statute or regulation is in regular font, neither underlined nor italicized, even though it is the title of a book. This is a departure from usual scholarly bibliographic format.
The name is always abbreviated as follows:
United States Code, abbreviated "U.S.C."
Code of Federal Regulations, abbreviated "C.F.R."

§ section number
There is one blank space between the section symbol and the number.
[optional] subsection
It is conventional to denote subsections with lower-case letters of the alphabet. The second sublevel of organization uses numbers. The third sublevel uses upper-case letters. The fourth sublevel uses lower-case roman numerals. Enclose each level of organization in separate parentheses. For example:
17 U.S.C. § 102(a)(1).

period at the end of the citation.
Citations to U.S. Statutes at Large are in the following format:
48 Stats. 112, 113 (1933).
Where 48 is the volume number, 112 is the first page number of the statute, 113 is the page number of the quoted material, and 1933 is the year that the statute was enacted. The U.S. Statutes at Large are cited when the history of a statute is discussed, but citations to the United State Code (abbreviated "U.S.C.") are more common in court cases.

state statutes

The format for citation to state statutes varies among the states, here are two examples:
Illinois: Ill.Rev.Stat. ch. 3, para. 4.
Massachusetts: Mass.Gen.L. ch. 3, § 4.
The states in these two examples use the word "chapter" where the federal government uses the word "title".

The statutes of California, Maryland, New York State, and Texas use words (e.g., "Education", "Penal") instead of title numbers, or chapter numbers, in their statutes. For example:
Cal. Penal Code § ##.
N.Y. Educ. Law § ##.
where ## is an integer number.

4. Bluebook format for citing secondary sources

citation of books

The Bluebook has a really strange format for citing books that is a radical departure from scholarly practice in other fields. In a multi-volume book, the volume number is placed to the left of the author's name! This practice is not only confusing to nonlawyers, but also ugly. There is no good reason for books to be cited differently by lawyers than by any other learned profession.

The title of a book is set in small capitals.   (Some wordprocessors have a command to automatically convert a block of normal text to small capitals.)

Examples of citing books or chapters in books:
Some attorneys omit the "of" in citing the Restatement, but the Bluebook includes the "of", and the inclusion makes the title easier to read.

A citation to a specific item in a book can be by section number or by page number.

articles in periodicals

The Bluebook uses a format for citing articles in periodicals (e.g., law reviews and other scholarly journals) that is different from conventional scholarly bibliographic format. For example: Note that:
  1. the author's name is in conventional order, not: last name, first name.
  2. the title of the article is in italics, not inside quotation marks
  3. the name of the periodical is in small capitals
  4. the volume number, name of the journal, page number(s), and year of publication are all given in the same format used for court cases.

After experimenting with different formats, I prefer the Bluebook format for volume and page numbers, because it is more compact than the traditional scholarly format (e.g., Vol. 4, p. 193). However, I prefer to put the title of an article in quotation marks, instead of italic typeface, since italics are traditionally reserved for titles of books. The really important thing in a citation is that a citation must accurately include all of the information that a reader needs to find and verify the source. The format of the citation is of secondary importance, although professional editors often care more about the format than the accuracy of the information, or the appropriateness of the author's choice of the cited source.


Papers published in law reviews are divided into two classes:
  1. Articles are written by professors or practicing attorneys
  2. Notes are written by law students.
The distinction is one of rank. As one arrogant law professor once confided to me, "Who cares what a 25 year old kid thinks?" The traditional Bluebook form for citing a Note is to use the word Note in place of the author's name. Astounding! Just because of rank, the student is forced to be anonymous, even if he/she wrote an outstanding scholarly work. The difference between an author of a Note and an author of an Article may be as slight as both passing the bar examination and one or two years of experience as an attorney. Surely, this is not a significant difference that affects one's ability to synthesize legal principles from many cases, or to suggest better law. Indeed, court opinions that cite law reviews often also cite Notes, which is proof that some Notes are taken seriously. In writing essays for my web sites during 1996-99, I used the law student's name in place of the word Note, in defiance of the traditional Bluebook rule, and to give the author of a good Note proper recognition for his/her work. The sixteenth edition of the Bluebook abandoned the traditional rule, in favor of writing the name of the student-author of the Note, followed by the word "Note" as, for example:
J. Peter Shapiro & James F. Tune, Note, Implied Contract Rights to Job Security, 26 Stanford L.Rev. 335 (1974).
This citation form was used by Judge Schiller at 737 A.2d 1250, 1256, n.12 (Pa.Super. 1999). Particularly when writing a memorandum of law, or a Brief to submit to a court, one should include the word "Note", to avoid misrepresenting that a Note is an Article.

Alternatives to the Bluebook

As mentioned in the introduction of this handout, the generally accepted style manual for legal citations in the USA is the Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, which is published by the editors of four prestigious law reviews at Columbia University, Harvard, Univ. of Pennsylvania, and Yale Law Schools. The Bluebook has a website.

The Bluebook is really only a style manual for authors of law reviews. There is a brief section in the Bluebook titled "Practitioners' Notes" that purports to give rules for style in both briefs filed in a court and legal memoranda. However, the Bluebook — which is written by law students who edit their school's law reviews — has no authority to establish rules for documents submitted to courts.

Further, there are many objections to the rules in the Bluebook. I mentioned above my distaste for their rule on citing a multi-volume book, with the volume number to the left of the author's name, instead of a format consistent with citation style for court cases and law reviews, in which the volume number goes to the left of the name of the book.

There are some alternatives to the Bluebook, but these alternatives are not commonly used in the legal profession:
  1. The American Bar Association (ABA) has created the Uniform Citation Standards.

  2. The Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD) has published a citation manual for use in teaching students in the first semester of law school. The ALWD publication simplifies some of the Bluebook rules and removes some of the inconsistencies among the Bluebook rules. And, unlike the Bluebook, the ALWD includes the citation rules promulgated by each state in the USA.

  3. The University of Chicago Manual of Legal Citation, printed in 1989 by Lawyers' Cooperative Publishing Company. The Chicago Manual is often called "The Maroon Book".

  4. Various state supreme courts have published a style manual, some of which are available on the Internet. For example:

The common Bluebook style for citing court cases mentions page numbers in a printed copy of an opinion, contained in a bound volume on a library shelf. These bound volumes are published by West (e.g., the seven regional reporters, Federal Reporter, and Federal Supplement), the U.S. Reports, or an official reporter that is published by a state. WESTLAW, which is West's collection of online databases, and the LEXIS online databases, both contain page numbers in the common printed reporters, so these online databases are substitutes for printed copies in bound volumes.

In contrast, the ABA style for citing court cases cites to a paragraph number in each opinion, instead of page numbers in the bound volume of a reporter. The ABA style is thus independent of printed reporters, most of which are proprietary products of West Publishing Company. The ABA style — which the Bluebook calls the "public domain format" — will become more important as attorneys find cases from a variety of different sources on the Internet. I expect to see courts post all of their opinions at their own website, instead of relying on West or Lexis to publish the opinions, but courts have been glacially slow to embrace the Internet.

I have one quibble with the public-domain format that cites to paragraph numbers: I always insert a paragraph symbol (¶) immediately to the left of each paragraph number in my citation. I do this to distinguish paragraph numbers from the long tradition of citing only page numbers.

Personally, I like references to generic sources, instead of references to a proprietary product. However, it is an established fact that West Publishing Company is the dominant source of reported court opinions in the USA. In September 2000, the seven regional reporters, F.Supp., and the Federal Reporter — all published by West — occupied 16631 volumes on library shelves. It will be a long time before any other source scans all of those old volumes (or purchases a license to West's database); deletes West's proprietary synopsis, deletes references to West's key numbers, and deletes West's headnotes from each opinion; then inserts paragraph numbers, and makes those old opinions available online. Therefore, I expect attorneys to continue to cite to the page numbers in West's Reporters for a long time.

5. Legal Writing Style

Legal writing is a type of scholarly writing by an educated person, so the comments in my handout, Technical Writing, and also in my other essay on writing are also applicable to legal writing. However, there are a few matters of style that are unique to legal writing; some of these are discussed below.

I recommend the following books:

plain English is better

There are two opposing points of view about legal writing style. The traditionalists advocate bloated or archaic legal prose, such as the following examples:
Wherefore, the party of the first part and the party of the second part do covenant and agree ....

Further, affiant sayeth not.
Such writing deserves to be set in a fancy black letter typeface, then ridiculed. The modernists, led by Bryan Garner, whose books I mentioned above, advocate writing in plain English. I am firmly in the modernists camp. Traditionalist attorneys have sometimes commented that my writing "doesn't look like it was written by a lawyer". They are criticizing me, I take it as a compliment.   <laughing>

Having advocated using plain English, I must also say that it is entirely appropriate to use conventional legal terms-of-art (e.g., due process, res judicata, amicus curiae, spoliation of evidence, etc.), even though someone without a legal education will probably not understand these terms. I do object to using an uncommon word where there is a common synonym with equivalent meaning (e.g., I object to eleemosynary when one could use charitable or nonprofit.). But, if an uncommon word has a nuance that makes it more appropriate, then use the uncommon word without hesitation. Garner, in The Elements of Legal Style at page 38, says "Arguments against big words have a way of descending into anti-intellectualism, so we ought to recognize that a liberal use of the English vocabulary ought not to be stifled."

specific comments on legal style


The names or designation of the parties in a court case always begin with an upper-case first letter. This is obvious when the parties are called by their real name (e.g., Myers), but it is also true when the parties are called by their role in the case (e.g., Plaintiff, Defendant, Appellant, etc.). On the other hand, if one is speaking of a plaintiff or defendant in general, then the word has a lower-case first letter.
Consider the following examples of the distinction between Plaintiffs and plaintiffs:
This is the only cloud seeding case in the USA in which plaintiffs won.
The above sentence means that different plaintiffs (e.g., Slutsky, Duncan, Lunsford, Saba, ..., etc.) each filed one case, but the plaintiffs lost in all but one case.
This is the only cloud seeding case in the USA in which Plaintiffs won.
The above sentence means that one group of Plaintiffs filed several court cases, and those Plaintiffs lost all but one case.

The name of a party in italics (e.g., Myers) is a short way of referring to the written opinion of the court that heard the case in which Myers (N.B. no italics) was a party (i.e., the Appellee in Connick v. Myers, a famous U.S. Supreme Court case on freedom of speech for government employees). Note the distinction between the italics and plain typeface: italics designates the opinion of a court, plain typeface designates the person.

The word Court has an upper-case C whenever it refers to either:
  1. the U.S. Supreme Court,
  2. the full name of the court (e.g., "the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit"), or
  3. the specific court that receives the document (i.e., in a document written for submission to a court).

innocent ?

A criminal court never finds a defendant to be "innocent". The result in a criminal court can only be "guilty" or "not guilty". Journalists often write that a defendant pled "innocent" or a jury found a defendant "innocent", but the correct phrase is "not guilty".

There are only three possible pleas:
  1. guilty, which means that the state does not need to prove its case, and the court only needs to decide the punishment of the defendant.
  2. not guilty.
  3. nolo contendere, in which the defendant does not admit his/her guilt, but also does not demand that the state prove its case. The court then decides the punishment of the defendant. The nolo plea is allowed only with the approval of the judge.
"Innocent" is not a possible plea in a court in the USA.

conclusory phrases

Be careful of using words such as "unfair, unjust, malicious". Those words express a conclusion, not a fact. The conventional names of many torts have such words included: unfair competition, wrongful death, malicious prosecution, etc. It is not adequate to merely assert unfairness or malice — one must provide evidence that leads a reasonable person to that conclusion.

signal phrases

The Bluebook says that "signal" phrases in footnotes or citations in text ("See, see also, accord, but see, compare, contra, see generally, cf., e.g.") are italicized. This Bluebook rule conflicts with generally accepted scholarly practice in other disciplines (e.g. The Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Language Association Style Manual), and I think the result looks strange, so I refuse to follow this Bluebook rule.

rules of style

Lawyers in the USA sometimes appear to follow different rules of style from other users of English:
  1. Most lawyers do not know the difference between that and which, to introduce clauses. See my handout on Technical Writing.
  2. Lawyers generally consider or to be exclusive, while scientists and logicians consider or to be inclusive. See my handout on Technical Writing.
  3. Lawyers commonly omit the comma before the last item in a list of items. As Bryan Garner says in his book, The Elements of Legal Style, pages 17-18, the omission of a comma before and can cause ambiguity.
  4. Judges use the subjunctive mood of verbs when appropriate more frequently than other learned professionals in the USA. I like the subjunctive mood, but it is rarely used in the USA, even among university professors and other educated people.

out-of-place technical jargon

From time to time, one sees allusions in court opinions to technical words or phrases from mechanics, electricity, magnetism, nuclear physics, etc. Such allusions are objectionable because they are jarring to the reader (i.e., they stick out like a sore thumb) and — to a scientifically literate reader — they show that the writer does not understand scientific terms. The latter point raises the question, if the writer uses scientific terms that the writer does not understand, then what else in the document has a weak justification?

In the interest of keeping this essay short, I have posted examples of Technical Babble by judges in the USA in a separate document.

This document is at
first posted 30 July 2000,   last modified 16 Dec 2009.

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