Skip to main content
Cornell University

How to Cite US Government Documents in APA Citation Style: Court Cases

Citing Legal Documents

For legal citations, the 2009 edition of the MLA Handbook refers writers to the most recent edition of The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation. "The Bluebook uses footnotes instead of parenthetical references keyed to a list of works cited, however, so its recommendations must be adpated to MLA style. "(MLA Handbook 205)

Court Cases

A Supreme Court Case

"When you cite a case, include, in addition to

  • the names of the first plantiff and the first defendant,
  • the volume, name (not italicized), and inclusive page or reference numbers of the law report cited;
  • the name of the court that decided the case:
  • the year of the decision:
  • and appropriate publication information for the medium consulted." (MLA Handbook, 206)

First example:

Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections. 383 U.S. 663. Supreme Court of the United States. 1966. Supreme Court Collection. Legal Information Inst., Cornell U. Law School, n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2012.

--383 U.S. 663 refers to volume 383 of United States Reports (U.S.) beginning on page 663.
--1966 is the year the decision was handed down.
--The researcher found the text of the case in the Supreme Court Collection compiled by the Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. Because the site does not indicate when the case was added to the collection, the notation "n.d." is added to indicate no date.

Note that the MLA Handbook mentions "inclusive page numbers," but the LII site reproduces some of these older opinions only in HTML (no pagination). The standard citation used in the Bluebook -- 383 U.S. 663 -- should be sufficient to lead your readers to the correct case.

Second example: As of this writing, the case below is available only as a "slip opinion." This means it is not yet published in United States Reports, the official reporter for United States Supreme Court cases.

Note that the information in the heading of the slip opinion directs users to "cite as:" 558 U.S. ____(2010). The MLA Handbook does not address this situation, therefore the Bluebook style is the default. The Bluebook notes, "When a case is unreported [i.e., not yet available in an official 'reporter'] but available on a widely used electronic database, it may be cited to that database. Provide the case name, docket number, database identifier, court name,and full date of the most recent disposition."  (Bluebook, 151)

Cite as: 558 U. S. ___(2010)
 Opinion of the Court
 NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the
 preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to
 notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Wash-
 ington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order
 that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
 No. 08-205
 [January 21, 2010]


In this case, you will need to adapt the Bluebook guidelines to MLA principles (perserving the order of elements dictated by the MLA Handbook and including the docket number and full date of the most recent disposition, as dictated by the Bluebook.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. 558 U.S. ___(2010). No. 08-205. Supreme Court of the United States. (January 21st, 2010) Hein Online: U.S. Supreme Court Library. n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2012. 

Note: In many databases, you will see a bewildering array of numbering systems, representing the different reporters (official compilations) that provide access to the document, docket numbers, etc. You do not need to include all of these numbering systems. For the Supreme Court, "Cite to U.S., if therein; otherwise cite to S.Ct. L. Ed., or U.S.L.W., in that order of preference." (Bluebook, 193). 

U.S. refers to United States Reports, the official reporter for United States Supreme Court cases.
S.Ct. L. Ed is the abbreviation for the Supreme Court Lawyer's Edition.
U.S.L.W. is the abbreviation for the United States Law Week.

Cases from lower courts:

Follow the order of elements in the two examples above. Consult The Bluebook to identify the official 'reporter' to be cited for each court. (Bluebook, T.1, 193-242). The section begins with the federal courts (Courts of Appeal, District Courts, and other specialized courts), and then by state to identify state supreme courts (as well as statutory compliations, session laws, etc. ). Look for the statement "Cite to..." at the head of each section.

See also: LII Basic Legal Citation

Citing Government Documents in the Body of the Paper (Parenthetical Citations)

MLA Style -- References in the body of the paper

MLA documentation style uses brief parenthetical citations in the text that lead to the list of works cited. To cite government documents in parenthetical references, the MLA Handbook refers users to page 224, Section 6.4.5. Citing a Work by a Corporate Author.

Following MLA Style guidelines, the first element in a parenthetical reference (generally, the author) should correspond to the first element in the List of Works Cited.

If you are referencing a number of legislative documents, you will need to include enough information in the parenthetical reference to direct the reader to the correct reference in the List of Works Cited.

"When giving the name of a corporate author in parentheses, shorten terms that are commonly abbreviated...." (MLA Handbook 224) e.g., (U.S. Cong. House. Comm. on House Administration).

As you can see, even with the abbreviations, this makes for a fairly long reference and may make your paper more difficult to read. One alternative is to include the reference in a sentence.

"In 2001, the United States Congressional Committee on House Administration published their report on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001 (House Rept. 131).  In the report, ..."

If you need to reference a number of legislative or legal documents throughout the body of your paper, you may wish to use another citation style, such as the Chicago numbered note style or APA style. You will need to choose the citation style that best fits your needs (and approved by your instructor) and use it consistently throughout the paper.

Web Accessibility Assistance