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Legal Citation Guide: Case Law


Case Law: Also known as judicial law; originates in the court system. The courts apply law in disputes between parties, and the outcomes are commonly referred to as court decisions.


Anatomy of a Case Law Citation

Examples: APA and MLA Style

Because the Chicago style footnote for case law is the same as what is described in the Anatomy of a Case Law Citation example above, the following examples focus on styles that use parenthetical in-text citations.

Reference list: Name v. Name, Published (or Unpublished) Court Reporter Volume and Abbreviation with Page Number (Court Date). 

In-text citation: (Name v. Name, Court Date)


Reference list: Ragas v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., 136 F.3d 455 (5th Cir. 1998)

In-text: (Ragas v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., 1998)


Reference list: Lessard v. Schmidt, 349 F. Supp. 1078 (E.D. Wis. 1972)

In-text: (Lessard v. Schmidt, 1972)

Common Abbreviations

F. Supp. = Federal Supplement

F. = Federal Reporter

U.S. = U.S. Reports

S. Ct. = Supreme Court Reporter

L. Ed. = U.S. Reports, Lawyers' Edition

A. Atlantic Reporter

Tips & FAQs

Omit all parties other than the first party listed on each side of the 'v'.

Ex. Dow Jones & Co. v. Harrods, Ltd.

Not: Dow Jones & Company, Inc., Plaintiff, v. Harrods, Limited and Mohamed Al Fayed, Defendants

For names of individuals, use only last names, omitting first names, middle names, and initials.

Ex. Darwin v. Dawkins

To point your reader to a specific page related to your cited material, include a pinpoint citation--aka a "pincite". Place pincites after the page in which the case report begins, separated by a comma.

Ex. Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 430 (1962)   -- In this example, 430 is the pincite.

On the treatment of reference and bibliography entries

APA and MLA style both require reference list entries and in-text citations for case law/court decisions. 

When using only a handful of legal citations in Chicago style, the recommendation is to limit legal citations to the text itself, using narrative to include information that would have gone in the footnotes. However, when using several legal documents in Chicago style, supplement with footnotes or endnotes.

Chicago style requires only footnote citations for legal documents. The documents do not need to be listed in the bibliography.

How to Read a Case Number

At the top of any case, you will find the case citation. There may be several different numbers assigned to a case, but usually the set listed in the top row is sufficient for a paper citation.

Case numbers include the volume number, the court reporter the case appears in (an actual print volume), and the first page number of the case report. It may also include information about the court and year in which the case was tried. 

Citation for example above:

Use the top set of numbers, 817 P.2d 3 (means Pacific Reporter, 2nd Series, Volume 817, page 3)

Becomes: Washington Elementary School District v. Baglino Co., 817 P.2d 3 (1991).


More case number examples, some with court and year information:

493 U.S. 146 U.S. Reporter, Volume 493, page 146

127 S. Ct. 1769 = Supreme Court Reporter, Volume 127, page 1769

221 F.3d 410 (3d Cir. 2000) = Federal Reporter 3rd Series, Volume 221, page 410 (3rd Circuit Court, 2000)

290 F. Supp. 67 (D. Nev. 1967) = Federal Supplement, Volume 290, page 67 (District Court of Nevada, 1967)