Perhaps as a child, you were the winner of every family disagreement and chose the courtroom as your destiny. Were you drawn to study law because of a famous case that impacted you, a supreme court justice that inspired you, or a movie or TV show Legally Blonde, anyone? Better Call Saul?
For everyone else, law school is infamous, whatever it was that got you waltzing up the marble steps. Above all, a law degree is engaging, provocative, enlightening, and challenging.
Unsurprisingly, many law students find themselves bulldozed by information overload.
That’s why we’ve come up with this brief guide on how to cite the U.S. code.
This article is perfect for:
- New or entering law students.
- High schoolers who want to get a jump ahead.
- Foreign law students who want to know how to cite US cases and statutes.
- Working professionals looking for a quick review.
- Anyone else who is curious!
So, You Want to Cite the Legal Code
Why We Cite
As a first-year law student (1L), you are expected to spend a large chunk of your waking life reading volumes of law cases, textbooks, court records, and statutes. You need all those inputs when writing and producing an output when testing your knowledge and understanding. You’ll be assigned academic essays, literature reviews, PowerPoint presentations, and a barrage of additional research projects. You will be asked to reference legal authorities and precedents in each assignment. These references, or citations, must be formatted correctly in a standardized way so that readers anywhere can reference them quickly and efficiently.
Who sets the standards for legal citations, you ask?
Hitting the scene in the 1920s, The Bluebook, published by Harvard Law Review, has become the quintessential bible for how to correctly style citations at just about every university offering a law program in the USA. Although other legal citation systems are in use (such as the unique system used by the Supreme Court), The Bluebook is the universal starting line for every would-be law person. While much of the critical material can be gleaned online in free articles such as this, don’t kid yourself: as a serious law student, you’ll need to get a hold of the latest print edition. Or, if you prefer, subscribe to a mobile-friendly app for a yearly fee.
A citation answers a few simple questions: who, what, where, and when.
- Who is the originator of the information? A legislature? An academic? A court?
- What is being cited? A statute, a case, a review article?
- Where might the reader locate the source information? Is it a government document, a book, or a web URL?
- When was the source material posted, published, or codified? Typically, only the year is required.
Ok, how about we get our hands dirty already?
The two categories of legal citations we will cover are:
- Case Citations
- Statutory Citations
How to Use Case Citations
A “case” is a lawsuit. It is a civil judicial proceeding where one party sues another for a wrong done, to protect a right, or to prevent a wrong.
Whether the case you are citing is a federal or state case, or whether the case is official or unofficial, citation rules will differ somewhat. However, the basic citation concepts will get you in the right direction.
Let’s begin with a citation from a legendary US Supreme Court case:
Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)
- Case Name: “Roe” refers to the plaintiff, Jane Roe. “Wade” refers to the first defendant, Henry Wade. The “v.” is usually pronounced “versus” and immediately clues us that we are looking at a case citation.
- Reporter Information: A “reporter” is a publication that contains the full text of public court opinions. Reporters can be official or unofficial; each reporter typically has a unique abbreviation used to identify it. In this case, the reporter is United States Reports and is abbreviated “U.S..” The number before the abbreviation is the number of the volume in which the case is published, while the number after the abbreviation is the page number within that volume. Therefore, in this example, the entire case text can be found on page 113 of volume 410.
- Court and Year: This last section of the case citation typically contains information about where and when the lawsuit occurred. Because this case is listed in United States Reports (which only lists SC cases), it is understood that the US Supreme Court tried it. The year listed is the year the case was ultimately decided.
For more detailed info about this case citation and others like it, visit the Georgetown Law Library.
How to Use Statutory Code Citations
A statute is a law passed by a legislative body. For the sake of simplicity, we will forgo talking about State Statutes and limit ourselves to federal statutes. Here is one example:
Organized Crime Control Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1968 (2006)
- The official name of the act: If the law has a name, list it at the beginning.
- U.S. title number: All federal laws are compiled into the “United States Code,” abbreviated “U.S.C..” The code is then subdivided by topic into categories called “titles.” Each title has a number. In the example given, the title number is 18, which includes all federal laws related to “Crimes and Criminal Procedures.”
- Section symbol and section number: The funny § symbol means “section.” It is followed by the section number, which tells us which title section is cited.
- If there is only one §, it refers to an individual provision within a statute.
- If there are two §§, it refers to the entire statute or a span of sections within it.
The above example is for an entire federal statute.
- Year: As of 2018, Bluebook no longer requires the year to be listed for federal statutes.
For further examples of how to cite federal and state statutes, visit the Richmond Law Library.
Going in Reverse: Using Citations for Research
Thanks to the digital revolution, it is now easy to use legal citations to access many statutes and cases. Some of the topmost free resources for research are:
Achieving your goal takes hard work, clever logic, a competitive spirit, and good old-fashioned grit. Before stepping foot in the courtroom, you’ll need to become a samurai of statutory code. If you take it one step at a time, we’re sure you will reach the finish line.