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The correct way to cite a Supreme Court case is: Petitioner v. Respondent, Volume Series Page (Year), like this: Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).

When a new case is made public, they print up an official copy of the opinion(s) (including concurring and dissenting views) called a “slip opinion”. From a slip opinion, you can give a half-way decent legal cite, as follows: Alexander v. Sandoval 532 U.S. __ (2001).

In this example, “Alexander” is the name of the Petitioner, or if there is more than one, the first one listed. “Sandoval” is the Respondent. Petitioner is not necessarily the plaintiff, the person who filed the original complaint. In fact, in this case, Sandoval was the plaintiff. The petitioner is just the party who lost in the Federal Court of Appeals, and is now seeking review by the Supreme Court. You could say “appellant”, but you’d be wrong. The procedure for getting into the Supreme Court is not by appeal, it’s by petition for writ of certiorari, hence “petitioner”.

Now, how do I expect non-lawyers to know that? I don’t. If you have a slip opinion, you don’t have to: the correct names of the parties are printed at the top of every even-numbered page.

Now that I’ve exposed that deep dark secret, I might as well risk disbarrment by revealing that the correct cite appears at the top of every odd-numbered page. It says: “Cite as: 532 U.S. __ (2001)”.

What does it mean? Standard legal citation follows the format: Volume Series Page. It means that this opinion was decided in the year 2001 and that, when it finally gets printed in a big, fat law book, it will be in Volume 532 of the United States Reports (cited “U.S.”). When the Reporter of Opinions printed this Slip Opinion, they did not know what page it was going to appear on, so they left a blank.

Eventually, your case will be printed in no less than three widely-used series: United States Reports (the official one) (“U.S.”), West Publishing’s Supreme Court Reporter (“S.Ct.”) and the Lawyer’s Cooperative Edition, Second Series (“L.Ed.2d”). The full correct citation would be: Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 121 S.Ct. 1511, 149 L.Ed.2d 517 (2001). This is essential for law review, but too pedantic for E2. The other two series cross-reference the official “U.S.” series, so the official, “U.S.” citation is sufficient to pinpoint any quote you want to make.

Once you start reading cases in American law, you'll eventually notice that United States Supreme Court cases are cited another way, too. Before the 1875 term, the United States Reports were numbered and cited based on who was the official Reporter of Opinions of the Court—that is, who was actually writing down and typesetting the lawyers' arguments and the justices' opinions. Marbury v. Madison, for instance, is cited as 5 U.S. 137 under the current system, but would have been cited as 1 Cranch 137 under the old system, as the fifth volume of United States Reports was reported by William Cranch, and it was his first volume.

Some lawyers, judges, and legal scholars still use the old system alongside the new system: Marbury would thus be cited 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, or 5 U.S. (Cranch) 137. The old system is never used on its own nowadays, and for most lawyers, it's easier just to skip it (like they skip citations to the Supreme Court Reporter and Lawyer's Cooperative Edition).

A list of the reporters, along with their abbreviation, term, and the volumes they reported:

Bound copies of these volumes have both the old and the new volume numbers written on the spine.

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