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Locating Legal Information in Primary and Secondary Resources: #1: How To Read A Legal Citation

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How to Read a Legal Citation

Howard W. Hunter Law Library

Legal Research Guide #1

How To Read A Legal Citation

 What is a Citation?

A citation is a reference to a legal authority. It is essential that citations to legal materials follow a standard format so that anyone using a law library may find the resources cited. Citation formats exist for many different types of legal sources including cases, statutes and secondary legal materials. Understanding the basic format for each of these different types of sources will enable the researcher to more independently locate materials in the law library.

Reading a Case Citation

Cases are published in reporters. A case citation is generally made up of the following parts:

  1. the names of the parties involved in the lawsuit
  2. the volume number of the reporter containing the full text of the case
  3. the abbreviated name of that case reporter
  4. the page number on which the case begins the year the case was decided; and sometimes
  5. the name of the court deciding the case.

Below is an example of a case citation:

Hebb v. Severson, 201 P.2d 156 (Wash. 1948).

In this example, Hebb and Severson are the parties in the case. The case can be found in volume 201 of the Pacific Reporter, Second Series beginning on page 156. The case was decided by the Washington State Supreme Court in 1948.

How To Find A Case By Citation

  1. Once you have a citation, the first step in locating the case is to identify the appropriate reporter. As in the example above, the abbreviated title of the reporter will be found in the citation. Use the following list to convert the abbreviation in your cite to a full reporter title.
A. Atlantic Reporter
A.2d Atlantic Reporter, 2d Series
B.R. Bankruptcy Reporter

Cal. Rptr.

Cal. Rptr. 2d

Cal. Rptr. 3d

California Reporter

California Reporter, 2d Series

California Reporter, 3d Series

F. Federal Reporter
F.2d Federal Reporter, 2d Series
F.3d Federal Reporter, 3d Series

F. Supp.

F. Supp. 2d

Federal Supplement

Federal Supplement, 2d Series

Fed. Cas. Federal Cases
Fed. Cl. Federal Claims Reporter
F.R.D. Federal Rules Decisions
L.Ed. U.S. Supreme Court Decisions, Lawyer’s Edition
L.Ed.2d U.S. Supreme Court Decisions, Lawyer’s Edition, 2d Series
N.E. Northeastern Reporter
N.E.2d. Northeastern Reporter, 2d Series
N.W. Northwestern Reporter
N.W.2d. Northwestern Reporter, 2d Series
N.Y.S. New York Supplement
N.Y.S.2d. New York Supplement, 2d Series
P. Pacific Reporter
P.2d. Pacific Reporter, 2d Series
P.3d Pacific Reporter, 3d Series
S. Ct. Supreme Court Reporter
S.E. Southeastern Reporter
S.E.2d. Southeastern Reporter, 2d Series
So. Southern Reporter
So. 2d. Southern Reporter, 2d Series
  1. For a more extensive list of abbreviations, consult either the abbreviation table in The Bluebook: A Uniform System of CitationALWD Citation Manual, or Beiber’s Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations. Ask at the Reference Desk for assistance in locating these sources.
  2. After you have identified the complete name of the case reporter, you will want to locate that reporter series in the law library. (A location table is available at the Reference Desk to assist you.)
  3. Now that you have found the reporter series, the next step is to identify the volume where the case is located. In a citation, the volume number always precedes the abbreviated reporter title.
  4. Next you need to determine the page on which the case begins. This page number always follows the abbreviated reporter title in your citation.
  5. Now that you have identified the appropriate volume and page number, pull the volume from the shelf. (Volume numbers are located on the spine of each reporter.) Turning to the appropriate page, you will find the full text of the opinion of the court.  Using the volume, reporter abbreviation, page number is also the best way to find a case electronically. 

Reading a Statutory Citation

Unlike case law which is made by judges in specific court cases, statutory law is made by the federal and state legislative branches of the government. Statutory law is published in codes. The United States Code contains statutes that have been passed by Congress. In addition, every state publishes its own statutory code. Citation format for statutes varies widely across the state and federal systems, however, there are similarities.

A federal statutory citation generally contains the following elements:

  • the title or chapter number of the code
  • the abbreviated name of the code
  • the section or part number of the title or chapter; and
  • the year of the code

Below is an example of a United States Code citation:

42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2006).

In this citation 42 is the Title of the Code where this statute can be found. U.S.C. is the abbreviation for the United States Code. § is the section symbol. 1983 is the section of title 42 of the code where the statute can be found. 2006 is the year of the code.

How to Find a Statute by Citation

  1. Once you have a citation, the first step is to identify the appropriate code. If you are researching a United States Code citation you may use any of the three federal statutory codes.

    Abbreviations for the federal statutory codes are as follows:
U.S.C. United States Code
U.S.C.A. United States Code Annotated
U.S.C.S. United States Code Service
  1. The U.S.C. is the official code of the federal government. This set contains the actual statutes as adopted by Congress.

    The U.S.C.A. and U.S.C.S. are annotated codes published by commercial entities. In addition to the statutes, these codes contain other information that may be valuable to your research. Perhaps most helpful are the case annotations where courts have interpreted the statutory sections. Annotated codes also provide cross-references to legal encyclopedias, legal periodicals, and federal regulations. An additional advantage of annotated codes is that they are available on the shelf long before the official U.S.C. which is published by the government.

  2. After you have identified the appropriate code, the next step is to identify the correct title. The United States Code is divided into 50 titles. Within all three versions of the United States Code, the titles are arranged numerically. In your citation, the title always precedes the code abbreviation.

  3. Once you have identified the appropriate title, the next step is to determine the section number. The section number follows the code abbreviation in your cite.

  4. Now that you have identified the appropriate title and section number you are ready to locate the code in the law library. Once you have found the code you will notice that the titles are printed on the spine. Often one title will span several volumes. Locate the volume containing your title and turn to the appropriate section number. Here you will find the full text of your statutory section.  The title, code abbreviation, and section can also be used to find the code section electronically.

  5. After you have found your section you will want to make sure that there have not been any amendments or changes. To do this check the pocket part (in the back cover of the volume) or the softbound supplement (shelved immediately after your volume).  Electronic code versions should be up to date, but you should always check to see when the electronic version was last updated.


(Last Revised 3/4/2013)


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