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.
Cherokee Nation v. State of
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 (
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:
328 F.Supp. 324 (1971) 444 F.2d 544 (1971) 403
There are four parts to each citation. (1) The letters in the middle are an abbreviation for the name of the reports.
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.
Nancy McGuire, MLS
Instructional Services Librarian
Mack Library, Bob Jones University