Looking at the citation of a US case can be a little confusing if you’re not sure at what you’re looking. For example, you might read a textbook with a reference to a case, such as:
Apple v. Microsoft, 670 F. Supp.2d 568 (E.D. Tex. 2009)
What does this mean?
Most cases in a trial level court will be cited in a format something like this:
Plaintiff v. Defendant, Volume Number. Reporter. Page Number. (Name of Court. Year)
Let’s look back at our example:
Apple v. Microsoft, 670 F. Supp. 2d 568 (E.D. Tex. 2009)
This means that our parties are Apple and Microsoft. In this case, Apple is the plaintiff and Microsoft is the defendant.
Next we have the number 670. 670 is the volume number of a Reporter, which is a series of books in which cases are printed. In this case the name of the Reporter is F. Supp. 2d which stands for Federal Supplement 2d. And the case starts on page number 568 of volume 670 of this Reporter.
Most cases are available electronically but imagine that you visit a library with hundreds of volumes of books. Our case will be in volume 670. We just have to turn to page 568. There are many other Reporters in which cases are printed, organized by jurisdiction.
Next we have a the name of the court which is E.D. Tex. To understand this you have to be a bit familiar with the names of courts and their abbreviations. E.D. Tex. means that the trial level court here is a federal court called the Eastern District of Texas. And finally we have our year which is 2009, the year the court issued the decision in this case.
Citations to appellate level courts are a little different. The parties will usually be identified as appellant and appellee. And the names of the courts will refer to appellate level courts.
You can usually recognize Supreme Court cases because they are eventually printed in a reporter called “U.S.” which stands for U.S. Reporter.
Look at this citation: Talbot v. Janson, 3 U.S. 1 (1795). This tells us that the case involved parties named Talbot and Janson and we can find the case in volume 3, page 1 of the U.S. Reporter. But obviously it would be easier to find this very old case online.
There are some cases which get slightly different names. For example, you might see a case called In re XYZ. This just means concerning the matter of XYZ. XYZ might be a bankruptcy case or a litigation of some sort.
Also, you might see cases that have unusual citations such as 2009 WL 2252194. This just means that the case was not printed in a reporter but a private company, such as Westlaw, published the case in its own reporter. These are known as unpublished cases because they are not published in official Reporters. In some jurisdictions unpublished cases have less value as precedent than published cases.