Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Boatwright Memorial Library

FYS 100 (28): Race and Law in the United States: Citing Legal/Gov Docs

Resources for U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

Citing Legal and Government Documents in MLA


Gaining familiarity with the legal-citation practices used to document legal works may be impractical for student writers and sometimes even for scholars working in nonlegal fields. Nonspecialists can use MLA style to cite legal sources in one of two ways: strict adherence to the MLA format template or a hybrid method incorporating the standard legal citation into the works-cited-list entry. In either case, titles of legal works should be standardized in your prose and list of works cited according to the guidelines below.

Legal Style

Legal publications have traditionally followed the style set forth in the Harvard Law Review Association’s Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, although some law reviews, such as the University of Chicago Law Review, have published their own style manuals. A more streamlined version of the Bluebook’s legal-citation method, the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation, was introduced in 2000. The Legal Information Institute, a nonprofit associated with Cornell Law School, publishes an online guide to legal citation geared toward practitioners and nonspecialists instead of academics.

Those working in law are introduced to the conventions of legal citation during their professional training. Legal style is a highly complex shorthand code with specialized terminology that helps legal scholars and lawyers cite legal sources succinctly. It points specialists to the authoritative publication containing the legal opinion or law, regardless of the version the writer consulted.

MLA Style

Students and scholars working outside the legal profession and using MLA style should follow the MLA format template to cite laws, public documents, court cases, and other related material. Familiarize yourself with the guidelines in the MLA Handbook, section 2.1.3, for corporate authors and government authors.

Following one of the fundamental principles of MLA style, writers citing legal works should document the version of the work they consult—not the canonical version of the law, as in legal style. As with any source in MLA style, how you document it will generally depend on the information provided by the version of the source you consulted.

Titles pose the greatest challenge to citing legal works in MLA style. Since MLA style keys references in the text to a list of works cited (unlike court filings, which cite works in the text of the brief, or academic legal writings, which cite works in footnotes ), writers should, with a few exceptions (noted below), standardize titles of legal sources in their prose and list of works cited. Following the MLA Handbook, italicize the names of court cases (70):

Marbury v. Madison

When you cite laws, acts, and political documents, capitalize their names like titles and set them in roman font (69):

Law of the Sea Treaty

Civil Rights Act

Code of Federal Regulations

When a legal source is contained within another work—for example, when the United States Code appears on a Web site that has a separate title—follow the MLA Handbook and treat the source as an independent publication (27). That is, style the title just as you would in prose—in italics if it is the name of a court case, in roman if it is a law or similar document; even though the legal source appears within a larger work, do not insert quotation marks around the title:

United States Code. Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School,

For more on titles in legal citations in MLA style, see “Tips on Titles,” below.

Commonly Cited Sources

A few examples of using MLA style for commonly cited legal sources follow.

United States Supreme Court Decisions

Where you read the opinion of a United States Supreme Court decision will dictate how you cite it in MLA style. Legal-citation style, in contrast, points to the opinion published in the United States Reports, the authoritative legal source for the United States Supreme Court’s decisions, and cites the elements of that publication.

For example, the case Brown v. Board of Education is commonly abbreviated “347 U.S. 483” in legal citations: 347 is the volume number of United States Reports; “U.S.” indicates that the opinion is found in United States Reports, which is the official reporter of the Supreme Court and indicates the opinion’s provenance; and the first page number of the decision is 483. (The American Bar Association has published a useful and concise overview of the components of a Supreme Court opinion.)

Regardless of the version you consult, you must understand a few basic things about the source: that it was written by a member of the United States Supreme Court on behalf of the majority and that, when you cite the opinion, the date on which the case was decided is the only date necessary to provide.

See this page for examples of works-cited-list entries in MLA style for Brown v. Board of Education. The entries differ depending on whether the information was found on the Legal Information Institute Web site, published by Cornell University Law School, or on the Library of Congress Web site.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.