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Legal Cases: Key Info

This guide explains how to find the text of court cases in the Mack Library. It first explains how to read legal citations and then gives strategies for finding the case in the library’s print collections as well as in its databases.

Case Names / Legal Citations

Understanding Case Names and Legal Citations

To find legal cases and to understand what they mean, it helps to understand how case names and legal citations work. In general, case names look like this:

                New York Times Company v. United States                   Marbury v. Madison

                Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia                 Miranda v. Arizona

The two names are the names of the parties or litigants in a lawsuit. The names may be those of private citizens (Ernesto Miranda), of companies (New York Times Company), of governments or government agencies (United States, Arizona), or of government officials sued in their official capacity (Secretary of State James Madison).

The first name given is always the name of the party that initiated legal proceedings. If the case is in a trial court, then that person is called the plaintiff. If the case is in an appeals court, then the first name will be that of the person who lost in the trial court or lower appellate court, and so is appealing to the higher court. Though both are popularly referred to as appeals, the law makes a distinction between appeals and petitions for a writ of certiorari. If the case is an appeal, then the first party is called the appellant. If the case is a petition for a writ of certiorari, then the first party is called the petitioner.

The second name given is always that of the party who is defending himself against legal proceedings. If the case is in a trial court, that person is called the defendant. If the case is in an appellate court, then the second party won the case in the trial court or lower appellate court. If the case is up on appeal, the second party is called the appellee or respondent. If the case is brought up on a writ of certiorari, the second party is called the respondent.

A few cases don’t follow the general pattern, for example, Ex parte Merryman or In re Gault. In those cases there were not two formal adversaries, so they are known by one name.

Court cases are cited by the series of reports that contains the text of the case. Reports used to be named after the person who recorded and published the court cases, for example, William Cranch, the second reporter of the Supreme Court. Now they are named after the court or the publisher. In general, citations to court cases look like this:

384 U.S. 436 (1966)                           86 S.Ct. 1602 (1966)

5 U.S. 137 (1803)                                1 Cranch 137 (1803)                        

328 F.Supp. 324 (1971)                    444 F.2d 544 (1971)                           403 U.S. 713 (1971)

There are four parts to each citation. (1) The letters in the middle are an abbreviation for the name of the reports. U.S., S.Ct., and Cranch are all abbreviations for reports of U.S. Supreme Court cases. F.Supp. is an abbreviation for the reports of federal trial courts. F.2d is an abbreviation for the reports of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. (2) The first number is the volume in which that case is published. (3) The second number is the page number on which the case begins. (4) The date of the case is given in parentheses.

Putting those four parts together, the first citation on the first line refers to the official reports of U.S. Supreme Court, volume 384, page 436—the citation for Miranda v. Arizona. That same case can also be found in the Supreme Court reports (a different edition), volume 86, page 1602. The citations on the second line refer to Marbury v. Madison, in both the official Supreme Court reports and in William Cranch’s original reports from the nineteenth century. The third line gives the case history for New York Times Company v. United States. The first citation is to the trial court case; the second is to the appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; the third is to the appeal to the United States Supreme Court.