how to cite a court case in mla

How to Cite a Court Case

Why Citing Court Cases is Important

Citing court cases correctly is an important aspect of legal writing. Proper case citation allows readers to efficiently locate the case you are referring to. It also demonstrates attention to detail and lends credibility to your work. When judges, lawyers, law students, and others in the legal profession cite cases, they follow a specific format to identify the case, court, year, and other key details. Learning how to cite cases properly is a fundamental skill for anyone working in the law.

Identifying Key Components of a Case Citation

To understand how to cite a court case, you first need to identify the core components of a case citation. These include:

Case Name

The name of the case is usually expressed as:

Plaintiff v. Defendant

For example:

Roe v. Wade

The plaintiff is the party who brought the legal action and the defendant is the party being sued or charged with a crime.

Year of Decision

The year the case was decided is integral to a case citation. Cases can be overruled or modified over time, so the year allows readers to determine if the case is still good law.

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Court Abbreviation

Knowing which court decided a case is crucial. Is it a state court case or a federal case? What level of court is it from? This info helps readers evaluate the precedential weight of the case.

Federal Courts

For federal cases, common abbreviations include:

  • U.S. – United States Supreme Court
  • F. – Federal Reporter (Circuit Court of Appeals cases)
  • F. Supp. – Federal Supplement (District Court cases)

State Courts

State court abbreviations vary but generally:

  • Use the two-letter postal abbreviation for the state name
  • “Ct” for Court
  • Sometimes the level of court is abbreviated too, such as “S. Ct.” for Supreme Court.

So a California Supreme Court case would be abbreviated “Cal. S. Ct.”

Citing Federal Cases

Let’s go through some examples of how to cite federal cases at the Supreme Court, Circuit Court of Appeals, and District Court levels.

Supreme Court Cases

For U.S. Supreme Court cases, use this format:

Case name, U.S. volume number first page, year decided

For example:

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 1973

Note the U.S. Supreme Court reporter is abbreviated simply as “U.S.”

Circuit Court of Appeals Cases

For U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, use:

Case name, F.2d/F.3d volume number first page, year decided

For example:

United States v. Manarite, 57 F.3d 1407, 1995

Here, “F.3d” indicates the Federal 3rd Reporter series. 2d and 3d indicate the series number.

District Court Cases

For U.S. District Courts, cite as follows:

Case name, F. Supp. 2d/F. Supp. 3d volume number first page, year decided

For example:

Chen v. Adorama Camera Inc., No. 19-cv-6352, 2021 F. Supp. 3d 331, 2021

“F. Supp. 3d” refers to the Federal Supplement 3rd series.

Citing State Cases

Now let’s look at how to cite cases from state courts. The format varies depending on whether it’s a published or unpublished decision.

Citing Published State Cases

For published state court decisions, cite like this:

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Case name, abbreviated state reporter volume number first page, year decided

For example:

Commonwealth v. Smith, 93 Mass. 523, 1865

This cites a Massachusetts Supreme Court case reported in the Massachusetts Reports in volume 93 on the first page 523.

Some states have their own specific official reporters. For others, you may need to use a regional reporter abbreviation, such as:

  • A. – Atlantic Reporter (covers several Northeastern states)
  • N.W. – North Western Reporter (covers several Midwestern states)
  • P. – Pacific Reporter (covers several Western states)

Citing Unpublished State Cases

If a state case is unpublished, cite it like:

Case name, No. docket number, year decided

For example:

Allen v. Clark Construction, No. B285137, 2020

This cites an unpublished California Appeals Court case. The docket number is given in lieu of a reporter volume and page.

Using Alternative Case Citations

Sometimes you may see a case cited in an alternative way, especially if it has been published in multiple reporters.

For example:

Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694, 1966

This cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous Miranda rights case with a citation to the official Supreme Court Reporter (“S. Ct.”) as well as the United States Reports (“U.S.”) and Lawyers’ Edition 2d (“L. Ed. 2d”) reporters.

Having alternative citations can be helpful, but choose one as the primary citation for consistency.

Formatting Case Citations

Let’s discuss how to incorporate case citations within your legal writing.

In-Text Citations

When citing a case in running text, enclose the citation in parentheses like this:

In Roe v. Wade (410 U.S. 113, 1973), the Supreme Court ruled that…

Citations in Footnotes/Endnotes

In footnotes or endnotes, cite the case as normal but without parentheses:

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 1973.

Examples of Common Case Citations

Below are examples illustrating how to cite various federal and state court cases:

U.S. Supreme Court

Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 1954

Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 2015

Federal Circuit Courts

United States v. Nixon, 418 F.2d 683, 6th Cir. 1969

Leatherman v. Tarrant Cty. Narc. Intelligence &Coordination Unit, 954 F.2d 1054, 5th Cir. 1992

Federal District Courts

U.S. v. Manafort, 315 F. Supp. 3d 799, E.D. Vir. 2018

FTC v. Qualcomm Inc., 411 F. Supp. 3d 658, N.D. Cal. 2019

State Courts

Lawrence v. Texas, 41 S.W.3d 349, Tex. Ct. App. 2001

MacDonald v. Moose, 4 Va. App. 439, 1987

Citing Cases from Online Databases

Today many researchers access case law through online databases like LexisNexis, Westlaw, and Google Scholar. These may have their own citation formats:

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Cite a Lexis case like:

Case name, Lexis database identifier

For example:

Graham v. Florida, Lexis 2008 U.S. Briefs 240


Cite a Westlaw case like:

Case name, year WL database identifier

For example:

Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Farm Credit Bank of Wichita, 1990 WL 151140

Google Scholar

Cite a Google Scholar case like:

Case name, year Google Scholar LEXIS unique ID number

For example:

Wilkens v. Gaddy, 2021 Google Scholar LEXIS 93871

Using Et Al and Id in Case Citations

A few other tips:

  • When a case has 3+ parties on one side, use “et al.” after the first party name.
  • Use “Id.” when citing the immediately preceding case again in a footnote.


Properly citing court cases may seem complicated, but following the basic formatting rules makes it fairly straightforward. Start by identifying the core components of the case citation, including name, year, and court abbreviation. Pay close attention to precisely formatting citations for federal versus state courts, published versus unpublished decisions, and the specific court level. Following the conventions of legal citation ensures readers can efficiently look up the cases being referenced. With practice, citing cases becomes second nature for legal professionals. Mastering this fundamental skill is essential for writing legal memoranda, briefs, motions, judicial opinions, and other legal documents.


What if I don’t have all the citation information about a case?

Include as much key information as you can, such as the case name, year, and court. Make a note if published status is unknown.

Are case citations italicized or underlined?

No – case names in citations are not italicized or underlined. They are written in plain text.

What if a case is commonly known by a short name?

You can use a common short name or abbreviation on subsequent citations but still include main parties. For example – After citing Roe v. Wade in full once, you may refer to “Roe” later.

Should I include case citations in court documents?

Yes, court rules generally require citations for any cases relied on as precedent. Check local court rules for specifics.

How do I cite a case cited within another source?

Call this “indirect citation.” For example: “Roe v. Wade, as cited in…” Use when unable to access the original case.

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