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Basics of citing a reported case

Reader John Tumulty came across a book of court opinions that was digitized by Google Books that includes a mention of a collateral relative, one Howell P. Reynolds, testifying as a 13-year-old witness in an 1860 murder case in Georgia where the defendant was one Richard Aaron, alias Richard Bryant.

“It’s a great story,” he reports, “but I don’t know how to cite what I found. It’s a book, but who’s the author? Do I list the judge as the author? What other information do I need to record about it?”

Oh, be still, my beating heart. For nothing could be dearer to the The Legal Genealogist than this one question, which takes me right back into the very first class the very first day of law school back lo those many years ago. Every law student takes a course called something like Legal Research & Writing, and every one of those classes begins with this very question.

How to cite a court case is Law School 101, for sure, and here’s your personalized Law School 101 case citation class.

The first thing you have to understand is that lawyers cite cases one way, and one way only. And genealogists usually don’t understand that citation method at all.1

So we’re going to look first at how lawyers cite cases, because (a) it’s what I want to do, so there; (b) it’s a good thing to know so you’ll understand how to find any other case that’s mentioned in any court opinion you’re reading; and (c) it’s a good shorthand reference that can be part of your first genealogical reference and then used afterwards to save a lot of repetition because it’s really short and the book name citation form genealogists use … well, short is not a word you could use very often when you’re talking about legal titles.

Case cites the lawyer’s way

So okay… the lawyer’s citation first. Every case citation has five parts:

• 1. The name of the case;
• 2. The volume number in the reporter series;
• 3. The name of the reporter series (usually abbreviated);
• 4. The page on which the case starts; and
• 5. A parenthetical with year the case was decided and, occasionally, other information as well.

Let’s look at these one by one.

Case Name

Almost every case involves one party against another. You have a plaintiff suing a defendant in a civil case, or you have the State or the People or the Commonwealth prosecuting a criminal defendant. Parties can be individuals, corporations, units of government — just about anything you can think of.

The general rule is to identify each party and abbreviate as much as possible. So John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt would simply be “Schmidt.” And The AyBeeCee Corporation, Limited, would end up as “AyBeeCee Corp.” or “AyBeeCee Corp., Ltd.”

In criminal cases, The State of Georgia would be shortened to State, and The People of the State of New York would be shortened to People.

And since it’s one side against the other side, the two sides are separated by the word versus, Latin for against,2 and even that is abbreviated as “v.”

Sometimes there’s only one party whose name is listed, and the court may title the case at the start of the opinion as something like “In the Matter of the Will of John Smith.” That’s usually shortened, and the usual form would be “In re Smith.”

There’s a way to cheat if you can’t quite figure out how the case name might be shortened. Most reporter volumes have a Table of Cases at the front. And the case names there, arranged alphabetically, will be a pretty good guide to how the cases will be referred to by the courts.

So looking at the image to the right here (click to enlarge), the case name would be Aaron v. State and the name is either in italics or underlined.

Volume Number

This is the easy one. The vast majority of cases are included in published sets called reporters. And the individual volumes in those sets of reporters are numbered.

The numbers are on the spines of the books and, as here on the image at the top (click to enlarge), on the title page of the volume as well.

And here the volume number is 31.

So far, we have Aaron v. State, 31.

Reporter Series

The published sets of reporters are usually named after the geographic area covered and sometimes both the geographic area and the type of court included. Cases of the United States Supreme Court, for example, are reported in the series called the United States Reports. And — here — cases of the Georgia Supreme Court are reported in the series called the Georgia Reports.

The reporter names are abbreviated just like the parties’ names are. You don’t need the word Reports because that’s assumed. So for the United States Reports, it’s just U.S., and for the Georgia Reports, it’s just Ga.

So now, we have Aaron v. State, 31 Ga.

Pagination

The next part of the citation is always the first page on which the case appears. It doesn’t matter where the actual opinion of the court starts — there’s usually a lot of information before the words of the judge or judges, and you want where that information starts. In this case, the very first page where the reporter begins to present information is page 167.

So now, we have Aaron v. State, 31 Ga. 167.

And, by the way, if you’re still having a little trouble with the case name the way a court would write it at this point, you can always try an online search for just the part after the case name (here, 31 Ga. 167) to see if you can find another court case that cites this one. Make sure to search where there are digitized books, such as Google Books, Internet Archive and HathiTrust.

Parenthetical

The last piece of every case citation is a parenthetical and every parenthetical includes the year the case was decided.

Sometimes the parenthetical also has to include the name of the court. That’s only when you can’t tell what court decided the case just by looking at the name of the reporter series. In New Jersey, for example, there’s a reporter called the New Jersey Superior Court Reports. There are three different courts — two trial courts and one appeals court — that could have an opinion included in that reporter. In that case, you’d add the name of the court to the citation.

In this case, any case that’s reported in the Georgia Reports was decided by the Georgia Supreme Court. So you don’t need to name the court in the parenthetical; the fact that the reporter is Ga. tells you what court.

So now, we have the whole citation: Aaron v. State, 31 Ga. 167 (1860).

Pin Cite

There’s one other bit of information you’re often going to want to include in your citation, and that’s the page where the specific information you’re relying on or quoting appears. In legal citations, it’s called a pin cite and it’s in addition to, not instead of the page where the case opinion itself begins.

In your case, the information about Howell P. Reynolds begins on page 170 and continues through page 172, and you might well want to cite the range.

In that case, we’d have Aaron v. State, 31 Ga. 167, 170-172 (1860).

Need more help?

If you’re still having trouble figuring out what goes where, or how to abbreviate a reporter series name, then you’re in luck. There are lots of resources online. For example, there’s Cornell Law School’s online guide to legal citations that can really help.3 Or try the Guide to Legal Abbreviations from USC Gould School of Law.

And for everything other than cases? You can try CiteUs LegalUs, subtitled “The Legal Citation Generator for Lazy Law Students.”

Case cites the genealogist’s way

What you’re looking at is a book. Cite it like you would any book. Then add the case cite from what you’ve just learned:

George N. Lester, Reporter, Reports of Cases in Law and Equity Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Georgia, Vol. 31 (Macon, Georgia : J.W. Burke & Co., 1871), 167, Aaron alias Bryant vs. The State of Georgia; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 18 Sep 2012); hereinafter cited as Aaron v. State, 31 Ga. 167 (1860).

Got it? Good. Class is over. Your homework is due on Friday…


SOURCES

  1. See generally Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2d edition (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009), 740-742.
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1217, “versus.”
  3. Peter W. Martin, Introduction to Basic Legal Citation (online ed. 2011), Cornell Law School (http://www.law.cornell.edu/citation/ : accessed 18 Sep 2012). For this particular question, see “Case Citations – Most Common Form,” § 3-210.
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