(Compare: How to cite a United States Supreme Court Case)

What’s a “Circuit”?

Some of the United States appeals courts are identified with particular "circuits", but they are not technically "circuit courts". This term is an artifact from the days when the judges would move from place to place, holding court in different locations. District courts are no longer covered by roving judges so there are no "circuit courts" anymore. However, the U.S. Courts of Appeals, which cover the territories the circuit riders once covered, still exist, and are still identified with the old circuits. These are called, for example, "The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit", or informally, "the Tenth Circuit".

The United States Constitution gave Congress considerable flexibility in setting up federal courts below the Supreme Court. The current system has two layers: district courts where cases are filed, litigated and tried, and appeals courts. Most of the appeals courts cover a group of district courts, called a “circuit”. Most of the "circuits" cover regions or groups of states, and are numbered “one” through “eleven”. The “First Circuit” is New England, the “Second Circuit” is New York, and the Pacific states are in the “Ninth Circuit”. There are some federal courts that are not geographically based, but instead handle particular kinds of cases. These get appealed to the "Federal Circuit" court of appeals.

Note: as part of the obfuscation which assures that teams of well paid professionals are needed to assert or defend legal rights, all of this nomenclature is different in the judiciary systems of the individual states. In a particular state system, the "circuit" court might be your local district court. This write up is about the federal judiciary.

Where do the numbers come from?

The numbers refer to the volume and pages of an official law books where the opinion was printed.

Federal circuit court opinions are published in a series of law books called the “Federal Reporter". The series long ago exceeded 999 volumes, but rather than going to four-digit volume numbers, a “Second Series” was started. That series ended in the 1990's and was followed by a “Third Series”. The series are cited by abbreviations “F.”, “F.2d” and “F.3d”.

The “Federal” reporter series are all by West Publishing Company. Though West has increased competition in the electronic publishing field, West has no competition in printing hard copies of federal cases.

Thus, all official federal cases can be cited in the form {Volume} F.{#d} {Page}, like so:

971 F.2d 1395

You also have to add the names of the parties in italics (or underline, if you have been transported by time machine back to the days when people used a typewriter and didn’t have italics) for example:

White v. Samsung Electronics, Inc.

And finally, in parentheses, you specify which circuit court, and the year the opinion was entered:

(9th Cir. 1992)

Putting it all together (in the accepted “right” order) you get something like:

White v. Samsung Electronics, Inc., 971 F.2d 1395 (9th Cir. 1992).

What does “cert. denied” mean?

If you are a party to a federal appeal, and you are unhappy with the result, you still have one more level to appeal to: the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, however, does not have to take your case. Review by the Supreme Court is by “writ of certiorari”. First you have to apply to have the Court even consider your case. In rare cases, the “writ” is issued, called “certiorari” because it directs the lower court to cough up a “certified” record of the case. This means the Court agrees to look at your case: it does not mean you won the appeal.

In almost all cases, the answer to your application for review is “no”. The technical response is an order from the Supreme Court telling you that your application for a writ of certiorari has been denied. In the citation of a case, denial of "cert" is indicated by the phrase, in italics: cert. denied, followed by a citation to a Supreme Court reporter. Usually, this cite just points to a table of cases listing the names and numbers of cases the Court has declined to take. The Court never explains why it will not take a case. Sometimes, when an individual justice wanted to take the case but was outvoted by the others, you will see a dissenting opinion, that is, a dissent from the denial of certiorari. But this is rare.

“Cert. Denied” does not mean the circuit court’s opinion was affirmed or reversed. It generally suggests approval, but could just mean the Supreme Court is waiting for the issue to be thoroughly chewed by all the circuit courts, before taking it up. “Cert. Denied” does confirm is that the circuit court’s opinion in that case is final and will not be reversed.

The format looks like this: Wendt v. Host International, Inc., 125 F.3d 806 (9th Cir. 1997) cert. denied 121 S.Ct. 33 (2000). Note that in this example, the decision was kicked around for three (3) years before the Supreme Court finally decided it was not going to look at it.

Other federal cases

If you come across a citation to a federal case that isn't in the above-described form, it probably does not have significant precedential value, but it may not be mis-cited.

It may be an “unpublished” case (a case not officially released by the Court for publication). “Unpublished” cases are generally not published for a reason. Usually, the facts are so weird and unique that it would be misleading to try and apply it to other cases. Nonetheless, an “unpublished” case might be interesting enough to lawyers who practice in a particular specialty that it might be published in special collections just for those lawyers.

Also, it may be a federal district court opinions, which have much less precedential value and are rarely published. When they are published, they appear in the “Federal Supplement”. This reporter is now in its second series, hence the abbreviations: “F.Supp.” and “F.Supp.2d”. District Court cases are not binding on anyone, and they are only useful if the opinion states an argument which is good and persuasive, but has not yet found its way into a Court of Appeals opinion and thus become binding precedent (which sometimes happens with very new or very unusual issues).

Sources: Law School, and 12 years of practice as a researcher.

Law students and interested noders will want to refer to: The Bluebook: a Uniform System of Citation, currently in its 17th Edition. http://www.legalbluebook.com/.

Note: Citing opinions that didn't garner a majority

More often than we'd prefer, the strongest, best language in support of a particular argument didn't commmand a majority of the court. Often, judges will write concurring opinions, stating (1) agreement with the result reached by the majority, but not with the reasoning or (2) agreement with some of the reasoning and the result, but confined to narrower grounds. Other times, a judge won't agree with the result reached or the reasoning the majority used to get there, and will write a dissenting opinion.

These opinions, strictly speaking, aren't controlling authority, i.e. courts aren't obligated to follow the rules and analysis articulated in these opinions even if the facts are identical (cf. stare decisis). However, often the language in these opinions is just too powerful to pass up. Thus, language in these opinions is often cited, even though it isn't binding. In order to avoid misleading the court as to the weight it must assign to such an opinion, the citation must specifically reflect that the opinion being cited is not a majority opinion.


Garceau v. Woodford, 275 F.3d 769, 781 n.1 (9th Cir. 2001) (O'SCANNLAIN, J., dissenting in part)

Valerio v. Dept. of Prisons, 306 F.3d 742, 779 (9th Cir. 2002) (FISHER, J., concurring)

The page number following the comma is the "pinpoint cite",i.e. the specific page within the opinion where the language quoted is to be found. Pinpoint cites avoid the aggravation of having to search for one sentence in a 50-page opinion, that, of course, is buried inside a massive footnote on page 23. Simply put, it's an important way to avoid getting a gavel thrown at you.

"n.1" indicates that the language quoted is in footnote one of the opinion. The hallowed Blue Book has made clear that it is essential to fundamental notions of ordered liberty that there be no space between the period and the number of the footnote.

When giving the name of the judge who wrote the dissent or concurrence, the judge's last name is all caps, followed by "J." ("Judge") or "C.J."(Chief Judge or Chief Justice). Also, the name of Circuit Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain, whose opinion is cited above, is spelled according to Gaelic spelling conventions, and is actually pronounced "Dermott O'Scanlon."

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