Legal citation is the practice of crediting and referring to authoritative documents and sources. The most common sources of authority cited are court decisions (cases), statutes, regulations, government documents, treaties, and scholarly writing.
The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (November 2020)
Typically, a proper legal citation will inform the reader about a source's authority, how strongly the source supports the writer's proposition, its age, and other, relevant information. This is an example citation to a United States Supreme Court court case:
- Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 480 (1965).
This citation gives helpful information about the cited authority to the reader.
- The names of the parties are Griswold and Connecticut. Generally, the name of the plaintiff (or, on appeal, petitioner) appears first, whereas the name of the defendant (or, on appeal, respondent) appears second. Thus, the case is Griswold v. Connecticut.
- The case is reported in volume 381 of the United States Reports (abbreviated "U.S."). The case begins on page 479 of that volume of the report. The authoritative supporting material for the writer's proposition is on page 480. The reference to page 480 is referred to as a "pin cite" or "pinpoint."
- The Supreme Court decided the case. Because the U.S. Reports publish only cases that the Supreme Court decides, the court deciding the case may be inferred from the reporter.
- The authority supports the proposition directly because it is not qualified with a signal. If it had offered only indirect or inferential support for the proposition, the author should have preceded the cite with a qualifying signal such as see or cf.
- The authority is from 1965, so either the clear and enduring wisdom of this source has been venerated by the test of time, or this clearly dated relic of another era is obviously ripe for revision, depending upon the needs of the writer.
Concurring and dissenting opinions are also published alongside the Court's opinion. For example, to cite to the opinion in which Justices Stewart and Black dissent, the citation would appear as the following:
- Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 527 (1965) (Stewart & Black, JJ., dissenting).
This citation is very similar to the citation to the Court's opinion. The two key differences are the pin cite, page 527 here, and the addition of the dissenting justices' names in a parenthetical following the date of the case.
Of course, legal citation in general and case citation in particular can become much more complicated.