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Online Resources

Legal Citations

In the U.S. legal system, judicial opinions are probably the most frequently cited category of legal material. The articulated grounds of past judicial decisions are, in many instances, binding precedent for currently litigated matters. Under other circumstances, they are "persuasive" authority. In either event, if on point, they should be cited. In the context of legal citation, judicial opinions are commonly referred to as "cases" and organized collections of opinions are called "law reports" or "case reports." Most cited "cases" are opinions of appellate courts; however, trial court rulings on questions of law do on occasion produce decisions lawyers may wish to cite, despite their limited force as precedent.

Prior to the era of electronic information dissemination, many courts that produced large numbers of legal opinions selected only a fraction of them for "publication" in law reports. The remaining "unpublished cases" were, as a practical matter, unavailable for citation. The appearance of online systems ready, even eager, to pick up and distribute "unpublished" decisions forced courts to be clearer about the status of decisions they view as merely involving the routine application of settled law. .

Since the decisions of American courts generally deal with multiple issues and tend to be lengthy, recounting pre-litigation facts and procedural events of limited relevance to the points for which they might be cited, it is rarely enough simply to cite the case. Under most circumstances, a full case citation should include a reference to a specific portion or portions of the opinion. A reference that merely directs the reader to a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and no more has a greater likelihood of frustrating than persuading. It is analogous to route directions that identify the city or neighborhood but fail to furnish a complete street address.


*Please visit the for examples and information on legal citation. 

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