The term citation has two different uses in a legal sense: one use of the term is an official order to appear in court, such as a traffic ticket (or traffic citation); the term is also used in making reference to authoritative documents, or giving credit to outside sources in writing articles, reports, or other documents. Court citations are fairly straight forward, listing the time and place the recipient must appear before the judge. Reference citations generally provide the source of the material, a description of how it helps the writer’s argument, and other relevant information. To explore this concept, consider the following citation definition.

Definition of Citation


  1. A document containing a summons to appear in court.
  2. The act of quoting a reference to an authoritative writing, or a legal precedent.


1250-1300       Middle English citacio

What is Citation of Authority

The legal system is a vast, complex institution, comprised of both statutory laws, which are those created by legislative bodies, as well as case law, which is the body of previously made decisions and rulings on a wide variety of legal issues. The purpose of case law, often referred to “case precedent,” is to preserve a uniform enforcement of the laws, and of the resolution of similar civil matters. These prior decisions are used to lend credibility to a legal argument, or to explain how the court reached its decision on a certain matter.

Whenever case precedent is referred to, the source of the information must be provided. This listing of source information is called “citation of authority.” There are a number of methods and formatting for writing citations of authority, though the basic elements that must be included are the same. Any citation of authority must include:

  • The name of the case, or section of the statute being used as reference
  • The year the case was decided
  • The “address” of the citation, which is the volume number, the report series, and the page number where the information is located

There is a system of abbreviations, and an order to how citations are written. Following is an example citation for Roe v. Wade, the historical Supreme Court decision on abortion:

Roe v. Wade (1973) 410 U.S. 113, 93 S.Ct. 705, 35 L.Ed.2d 147

In this example citation, “410 U.S. 113” refers to the volume number of the United States Reports (410), and the page number where the decision on the case is found (113). “93 S.Ct. 705” provides the same information, as listed in West’s Supreme Court Reporter, and “35 L.Ed.2d 147” refers to the volume and page number where the case is located in Supreme Court Reports, Lawyer’s Edition, Second Series (volume 35 of the Lawyer’s Edition, second series, at page 147).

MLA Citation

Legal writing is not the only type of writing that requires citation of sources. Citation is necessary when referring to, or quoting from, the works of other people or entities. Many people publishing articles, academic journals, book and film reviews, technical and research papers, and a host of other writings rely on the Modern Language Association (“MLA”) style of citation. MLA citation makes use of “parenthetical citation,” which places source information in parentheses directly after the quote or reference to which it applies. Specific information on the format of MLA citation can be found on the MLA website.

APA Citation

The American Psychological Association (“APA”) style of formatting and citation is most commonly used in the publication of papers and reports in the social sciences. APA citation makes use of in-text citation, as well as endnotes and footnotes. Specific information on the APA style, and APA citation can be found on the APA website.

AMA Citation

Citation of sources in medical papers and journals follows the style set by the American Medical Association (“AMA”). AMA citation is used in many disciplines, including health, medicine, and the biological sciences. AMA citation makes use of footnotes, marking the text with superscript numerals to guide the reader to the proper reference at the bottom of the page. The AMA Manual of Style can be found at their website.

Chicago Style Citation

The Chicago Manual of Style offers two citation systems, one of which makes use of notes and a bibliography, and the other citing only the author and date of publication. Chicago style citation is popular in many types of writing, including business writing, legal writing, educational reports, and others.

The Chicago notes and bibliography style is most commonly used by those writing in the areas of humanities, literature, the arts, and history. This is possibly because it allows for notes and esoteric information that does not work well with the author-date system. The Chicago author-date system makes use of brief parenthetical citations within the text, which is favored by those in the natural, physical, and social science professions.

Citation Generator

Writers in any specific field generally use one type of citation consistently in their writings. Students writing papers as assignments in various classes may receive instructions to use different styles, making it more difficult to properly format their citations. There are a number of websites providing automated citation creation, referred to as “citation generators.”

When using a citation generator, the user first chooses a style, such as MLA or Chicago citation. The user then selects the book, journal, or other work used as reference, then enters more specific information as to just where the referenced material is located. The citation generator then displays the citation in the proper format, allowing the user to simply copy and paste the reference into their text. Citation generator services are usually free, providing a valuable service to students, teachers, and independent researchers.

Judicial Citation

Many people are issued citations every day in the form of traffic tickets. These citations are issued when someone violates a traffic law, and each specifies a date and time for that person to appear at court to face the charges. Citations may be issued for circumstances other than traffic violations. They may be issued directly by the court, or by a police officer, or other individual with authority to summon someone to court.

For example:

Jody is distracted as she travels through a school zone at a high rate of speed. A police officer stops her and issues a citation for speeding through a school zone. On the back of the citation there are instructions for obtaining a date and time to appear in court regarding the charge.

In this example of citation, Jody is not required to appear in court, but it might be advantageous to her to do so. For instance, many people who appear in court on a traffic citation are able to have their fine lowered. Alternatively, Jody may simply pay the fine listed on the front of the ticket, and not have to worry about making time to go to court.

Citation Example with Mandatory Court Appearance

While most traffic citations do not require the recipient to appear at court, allowing instead payment of the fine by a certain date, other violations are considered serious enough to have a mandatory court appearance. Just which types of civil citation require a personal appearance before the judge varies by state. Many states consider these offenses serious enough to require personal appearance:

  • Speeding at more than 30 MPH over the posted speed limit
  • Not having valid insurance when involved in an accident
  • Passing a school bus displaying a notice to stop when children are entering or exiting the bus
  • A non-criminal traffic violation involving an collision in which a person is killed or sustains serious bodily injury

Example of citation requiring court appearance:

Rhonda looks down at her phone as she approached an intersection. Because she wasn’t paying attention, she failed to see a car making a left-hand turn, as she rolls through the red light to make her right-hand turn. The other car swerves to avoid hitting Rhonda, then strikes a pedestrian, fracturing his pelvis, and causing a severe concussion.

In many jurisdictions Rhonda’s running of the red light to turn right would not be considered criminal, but it was her actions that started the chain of events that led to the pedestrian’s serious injuries. Rhonda is issued a citation by the police officer which requires her to appear at a hearing with the judge. In this example of citation requirements, Rhonda would not be given the option to simply pay her ticket and forget it.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Bibliography – A list of books referred to in a scholarly work, usually printed at the end of the work in an appendix.
  • Case Law – Law that is based on decisions made by judges in past cases.
  • Endnote – A note, containing comments or citing a reference, placed at the end of a chapter or article.
  • Footnote – A note containing a reference or comments placed below the text on the same page.
  • Precedent – A rule or principle established by a court, which other courts are obligated to follow.
  • Statutory Law – A written law passed by a legislature on the state or federal level.

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