Skip to Main Content

Law School Home

U.S. Supreme Court Research Guide: Glossary and Reference

Reference Categories

Amicus curiae brief. “Friend of the court” brief; advice formally offered to the court by an entity interested in, but not a party to, the case. The person or entity is called an “amicus;” the plural is “amici.”

Brief. A written statement submitted in a trial or appellate proceeding that explains one side's legal and factual arguments.

Capital case. Case regarding a crime punishable by death. By the time a capital case reaches the Supreme Court, the defendant has already been convicted and sentenced, and either the defendant or the government is asking the court to review a decision by a lower court in the other’s favor.

Certiorari-stage brief. Certiorari-stage briefs are the filed by parties to tell the court why it should or should not take a case.

Circuit. The United States is divided into 13 circuits, each with a different court of appeals. Eleven of the circuits are numbered first to eleventh. The District of Columbia has its own circuit that hears many cases involving the federal government. Rather than serve a geographic area, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit hears cases involving particular subject matters, such as patents and international trade.  

Concurring opinion. Sometimes a justice votes with the majority of the court on the outcome of a case, but wants to write a separate concurring opinion (or “concurrence”). For example, a “concurrence in the judgment” may give different reasons for reaching the same conclusion. Other justices may join a concurring opinion written by a justice.

Conference. The justices meet privately in conference, twice a week when the court is in session and usually once a week when the court is not in session, to vote on petitions for certiorari and on argued cases.

Court of appeals. The 13 courts of appeals are federal courts that hear appeals, mostly from federal district (i.e., trial) courts, but also from federal administrative agencies. The vast majority of the cases the Supreme Court hears come from federal courts of appeals. A court of appeals is often referred to by the name or number of its circuit (for example, “the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit” or just “the 6th Circuit”).

CRS Reports. The Congressional Research Service, a component of the Library of Congress, conducts research and analysis for Congress on a broad range of national policy issues. The CRS itself does not make its non-confidential publications directly available to the public, but some reports are disclosed for various reasons and then maintained by third-party sites.

CVSG. The Court can issue a call for the views of the Solicitor General (“CVSG”) when it is deciding whether to grant certiorari in a case and thinks the view of the federal government might be relevant or useful – even though the United States is not a party. The U.S. solicitor general then files a brief in the case expressing the views of the United States government. A CVSG is technically an invitation, but the solicitor general always treats it as a command.

Dissent. If a justice disagrees with the court’s opinion, he or she may issue a dissent, which, like the opinion, is a substantive and often lengthy piece of writing that lays out reasons why the court’s opinion is mistaken. Other justices may join a justice’s dissent.

Docket. The calendar of cases that the court is scheduled to hear. A case is “docketed” when it is added to the docket, and given a “docket number." The court’s docket consists of a log of the complete history of each case in the form of brief chronological entries summarizing the court proceedings.

Grant of certiorari (or “cert grant”). The Supreme Court grants certiorari when it decides, at the request of a party challenging the decision of a lower court, to review the merits of the case. (If the Supreme Court denies certiorari in a case, then the opinion below stands; the decision to deny certiorari does not make precedent.)

GVR. When the court “GVRs,” it grants certiorari, vacates the decision below, and remands a case to the lower court without hearing oral argument or deciding the case on the merits. A GVR order is not accompanied by a written opinion addressing the merits of the case, but the court usually provides some direction to the lower court by, for example, instructing it to reconsider its decision in light of a recent decision by the Supreme Court.

Habeas (or habeas corpus) petition. Latin, meaning "you have the body." A habeas petition is a request for a court to review the legality of someone’s detention or imprisonment. All federal courts, not just the Supreme Court, can hear habeas petitions, though federal statutes impose significant constraints. Petitioners seek a "writ of habeas corpus," which is generally a judicial order forcing law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding, and to justify the prisoner's continued confinement.

Holding a case. Keeping a case in abeyance, pending the disposition of another case.

Merits briefs. Once the Supreme Court has granted certiorari in a case, each party has the opportunity to file merits briefs. Unlike the certiorari-stage briefs, which tell the court why it should or should not take the case, the merits briefs tell the court why each party thinks it deserves to win.

Opinion. A Justice's written explanation of the decision of the court; a substantive and often lengthy piece of writing summarizing the facts and history of the case and addressing the legal issues raised in the case. See About Opinions on the General Research page of this Guide.

Opinion below. The opinion issued by the court that heard the case immediately before the losing party asked the Supreme Court to review the case (almost always a federal court of appeals or a state court of last resort) is known as the opinion below.

Order. An order is an instruction or direction issued by the court. Unlike an opinion, which analyzes the law, an order tells parties or lower courts what they are to do. For example, the court can order certiorari granted or denied in a case, it can order a lower court to re-examine a case in light of a new point or theory, or it can order the parties in a case to conduct oral argument on a certain date.

Per curiam opinion. Latin, meaning "for the court." An unsigned opinion, written for the court as a whole by an unidentified justice. Written dissents from per curiam opinions are signed.

Petition for certiorari. When a party in a case is unhappy with the decision of a lower court (a state court of last resort or a federal court of appeals), it can choose to file a brief asking the Supreme Court to hear its case. That brief is a petition for certiorari.

Petitioner. The petitioner is the party asking the Supreme Court to review the case because she lost the dispute in the lower court. Her name goes first in the case name. (For example, George W. Bush was the petitioner in Bush v. Gore.)

Relist. A relist occurs when the justices consider a petition for certiorari at one of their private conferences but decline to act on it, instead “relisting” it, typically for the following conference. In recent years, the court has begun a practice of routinely relisting petitions that are under serious consideration for review at second or subsequent conferences prior to entering orders granting or denying certiorari. This practice is distinct from the justices holding a petition pending the disposition of another case.

Remand. The term “remand” means “to send back” and refers to a decision by the Supreme Court to send a case back to the lower court for further action. When it remands a case, the court generally includes instructions for the lower court, telling it to start an entirely new trial or directing it, for example, to look at the dispute in the context of laws or theories it might not have considered the first time around.

Respondent. The respondent is the party that won in the lower court. That party's name goes second in the case name. (For example, "Wade" was the respondent in Roe v. Wade.)

Solicitor General. The solicitor general is the lawyer for the U.S. government, and attorneys in his or her office are responsible for presenting cases on behalf of the United States in the Supreme Court.  A representative from the solicitor general’s office will also frequently argue on behalf of the United States when the government is not a party but has filed an amicus brief in the case.

Summary reversal. The Court issues a summary reversal when it grants certiorari in a case and overturns the opinion below without written briefs or oral argument on the merits. The Court generally issues a per curiam opinion when it reaches a judgment this way, it 

Vacate. To vacate a lower court ruling is to strip that ruling of effect, often in order to send the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

Common Abbreviations

Reporter abbreviations:

U.S. United States Reports (official reporter of the U.S. Supreme Court)
S.Ct. Supreme Court Reporter (unofficial reporter, published by West)
L.Ed. United States Supreme Court Reports: Lawyer's Edition (unofficial reporter, published by Lexis)

United States Courts of Appeals

Each of the eleven numbered Federal circuit courts is designated "[ordinal number] Cir.," with no period after the number. For example, the Second Circuit is abbreviated "2d Cir."

The D.C. Circuit Court is abbreviated "D.C. Cir.," and the Federal Circuit Court is abbreviated "Fed. Cir."

The following books are useful sources of legal abbreviations.

Sources of Citation Information

In the Twentieth Edition of the Bluebook, Table T1.1 regards preferable citations to Supreme Court reporters.

In HeinOnline, navigate to the Citation search tab and click the Citation Format Guide.

Under the Supreme Court page in Westlaw, click the Scope Information button (an i in a circle) and then expand the Citation Formats section.

Citing to Reporters

When citing Supreme Court cases since 1875, you must cite to the official Supreme Court reporter, United States Reports. Citations to the United States Reports list the following five elements in order:

  • Name of the case (italicized or underlined);
  • Volume number of the United States Reports in which it was published
  • Reporter abbreviation ("U.S.")
  • First page where the case can be found in the reporter and pinpoint page if required (set off by a comma)
  • Year the case was decided in parentheses

For example:

  • Miranda v. State of Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)
    • Miranda and State of Arizona are the parties, and their names are also the name of the case
    • 384th volume of the U.S. Reports
    • Case starts on page 436 of this volume
    • Case was decided in 1966

Citations to unofficial reporters follow a similar pattern of volume number, reporter abbreviation, and page number.

Citing to Older Reporters

For decisions since 1875, citations to the United States Reports (volumes 91-date) follow the now-standard pattern described above: [vol] U.S. [pg] (year).

For decisions before 1875, citations include the U.S. Reports editor's last name and the volume number relative to that editor. The citation is [vol] U.S. (# ed.) [pg] (year)

For example:

  • Johnson v. M'Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543 (1823)
    • 21st volume of U.S. Reports.
    • Henry Wheaton was the editor of this volume.
    • This was the 8th volume of which Henry Wheaton was the editor.
    • Case starts on page 543.

U.S. Reports years and volumes, aligned with its first seven editors, are as follows:

Years U.S. Reports volumes Name of Editor Volume Citations
1790-1800    1-4 Alexander J. Dallas (1-4 Dallas)
1801-1815 5-13 William Cranch (1-9 Cranch)
1816-1827 14-25 Henry Wheaton (1-12 Wheat.)
1828-1842 26-41 Richard Peters (1-16 Pet.)
1843-1860 42-65 Benjamin Chew Howard  (1-24 How.)
1861-1862 66-67 Jeremiah Sullivan Black (1-2 Black)
1863-1874 68-90 John William Wallace (1-23 Wall.)

See also Dates of Supreme Court decisions : United States reports, volumes 2-107 , August term 1791-October term, 1882 (Ref Coll KF101.6 .A86 1997)

To determine what dictionaries or encyclopedias are available in the Law Library collection, perform an advanced search of the MLaw Catalog, and include the Subject term "Dictionary" or "Encyclopedia."

The following databases provide access to extensive legal reference materials.

Need Help?

  Call us at 734-764-9324

text message icon Text us at 734-329-5606

twitter bird icon Tweet @ us!

  Email us at Emails are answered by Librarians during standard business hours, Monday-Friday. Patrons may expect a response within 1-2 business days for most emails.

  Consult with us. Schedule an appointment to meet with a Reference Librarian.

  Visit us at the Information Desk on Sub-1 for immediate in-person assistance. Open 8 am - midnight, Sunday-Thursday, and 8am - 10pm, Friday-Saturday*


The chat service is available to all of our patrons but is designed to meet the legal research needs of U-M students, staff, and faculty.

Chat is monitored from 1-6 pm Monday-Wednesday and 1-5 pm Thursday-Friday on days when class is in session.

*Excluding University holidays and semester breaks--check library hours for more information. The Building and library are available to law school community ONLY after 6 pm, and are closed to all but law school community on home football Saturdays.