How to pronounce court cases?
January 22, 2012 3:06 AM   Subscribe

In court cases in the US, how are case names actually pronounced?

For example, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

"Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, three-forty-seven you-ess four-eighty-three, nineteen-fifty-four?" Or would this full title never be read like this at all? "Brown and Board of Education?" "Brown against?"

What about things like et al.? Bonus points for district courts, local courts, etc. Super bonus points for other countries.
posted by reductiondesign to Law & Government (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In the law classes I've taken (IANALStudent, but I'm a philosophy MA, so...), the case you reference above is referred to as "Brown vee Board", though if you're feeling really formal, the rest of the name can be there. Cities are always referred to as "city of (x)", but states are just the state name.

If the name has a common acronym (ie, if someone was to sue NASA), then the organization would be referred to by that acronym. This is only in speech!

Latin abbreviations are commonly mispronounced, but "et al." is generally pronounced just how it looks.

Another legal term, "Ceteris paribus" on the other hand, is pronounced with a soft "c" for some indeterminate reason, same as my next example...

"Etc" should always be pronounced in full, "et cetera", lest you irritate people.
posted by zinful at 3:47 AM on January 22, 2012

Totally depends on the circumstances. Sorry, but there's no clarity in the US on this. (For ex. some say et alia rather than the abbreviation.) Different courts have different rules and expectations. And, of course, it totally depends on context.

(One thing that's consistent is saying v. or versus rather than and or against.)
posted by miss tea at 4:45 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The US has 51 major judical jurisdictions, federal Courts plus 50 states.

Each Jurisdiction (and the legal culture of that jurisdiction) has different rules and language. One example, in the federal jurisdiction (and in most states), Supreme Court means the highest court in the jurisdiction. In the New York State judicial system, the Supreme Court is the lowest court in the jurisdiction.
posted by Flood at 5:09 AM on January 22, 2012

It really depends - usually just by the first name in the case, unless that would be ambiguous. So a case with the US or a big company as a party may be known by the name of the other party, no matter who is listed first. Eg, the important consumer class action case from last year is captioned AT&T v Concepcion, but consumer lawyers mostly call it Concepcion in conversation.

The more famous the case, the shorter the name can be. If you say "Brown", lawyers will know what you mean. "v." is invariably pronounced "vee" if you use it. At oral argument before judges, it is normal to refer to cases by the last name of the first party only.

You would never say the full name with the year or reporter or full party name, unless you were actually informing someone of the formal, written case citation.

Some cases do get nicknames that are universally used. For example, if there is one case with several related opinions from different procedural stages, you may say "Smith I " and "Smith II". A set of related cases might have a thematic nickname too.
posted by yarly at 5:54 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've practiced in two states in state and federal courts and can confirm that courts do indeed say things differently according to their own local customs. The only time you would say all the words you listed is if you are reading the citation for purposes of someone looking it up in a book or on an online search. Most commonly, for a famous case like that, people will abbreviate to "Brown vee Board," or, in the context of a civil rights discussion, just "Brown." If a court is calling its own case for a hearing, for example, I've most commonly heard "Case Number 12-12345, Person one versus Person two." In my experience, "et al." (or the list of parties it replaces) is dropped unless the court is calling its own case, because that's one of the few times when the non-lead parties are important.
posted by *s at 6:01 AM on January 22, 2012

Oh, and if it is a less well known case, you would often add some more identifying info, but not in the form of the full case cite. In fact, the more important info would be the court and the date; the name might be secondary. So you might just say, "the California Supreme Court held that class action waivers were unconscionable in 2005."
posted by yarly at 6:03 AM on January 22, 2012

Just to chip in to note that in the UK, Brown v. Smith would always be spoken as "Brown against Smith". I was always told that saying "versus", or worse "vee" in this context was an americanism.
posted by prentiz at 6:08 AM on January 22, 2012

A Pronouncing Dictionary of the Supreme Court of the United States may be of interest, though it's about the names involved rather than "versus."
posted by languagehat at 7:42 AM on January 22, 2012

either way. versus is really formal, e.g., that's commonly how cases are announced in the supreme court before being argued.
posted by facetious at 7:56 AM on January 22, 2012

FWIW, and you likely already know this, but those numbers after the "Brown v. Board etc." stuff aren't really the "title" of the case, they refer to the reporter in which the case was published. So, for instance, that information doesn't exist at the time a case is argued or goes to trial; it would probably have a docket number instead. While the reporter citation conveys information that might be important in certain contexts (mainly the year, the jurisdiction, and the level of the court issuing the decision, which would all indicate whether the case is binding precedent on you or only persuasive), you wouldn't speak it as it's written; rather it would be, "Jones v. Smith, a 2008 decision from the New York Appellate Division, 4th Department," or something, which is info that you can derive from the full cite.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 9:23 AM on January 22, 2012

You've got good answers here for the USA. Canada is mostly the same, though "v" often becomes "and" here, but not always; often the American pronunciations are used. The full citation, with the reporter, doesn't need to be spoken because no one cares in oral contexts, and it's already in written submissions.
posted by smorange at 9:37 AM on January 22, 2012

Practicing U.S. lawyer here, experience with multiple federal jurisdictions and two state courts. I agree this is hugely anecdotal and practice varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

My torts professor in law school told us that it was gauche to pronounce the "v." in a case name as "vee". He always said "against". So, "Brown against Brown" is how he would say it. This is all anecdotal, but among the US practicioners (and judges) I've been around, I've heard "vee", "versus" and "against" used. Everyone knows what's meant, and my own sense is that using one or another isn't really a shibboleth of any sort. Heeding the instructions of my old torts professor, though, I personally never say "vee".

If I had it handy I'd look up what Garner says in his Modern Legal Usage book, but I don't have that handy, sorry.

Regarding cites, if you ever listen to oral arguments in court, the lawyers will very, very rarely speak out the full cites to a case. That's because the full cite is in the brief, and the mentioning of the case name is to remind the judge about what's in the brief, or, if you're talking about a really well-known case, it's all just shorthand. So lawyers will talk about "Daubert" when dealing with experts, or an "Alford plea" when talking about a specific kind of guilty plea. In those contexts, no one would actually say "Daubert versus Merrill Dow" or "North Carolina versus Alford", let alone speak out the cites, since it's all shorthand.

If you actually do need to provide a cite for some reason (such as if you think it belongs on the record, or if you need to provide it to opponents or whatnot), some verbalization quirks I've noticed which may not be apparent to non-practicioners are:

- I usually hear the abbreviations for the Federal Reporter and Federal Supplement pronounced as "fed". So 123 F.3d 423, 23 would be read "one twenty three, fed third four twenty three, at page 23". Likewise, 222 F.Supp.2d 333 would be read "two twenty two, fed supp second, three thirty three".
- Regional reporters are usually expanded, but this isn't consistent "N.E.2d" would be read out as "north east second" but if someone said "enn eee second" there wouldn't be much confusion. Same for "P.2d" become "Pacific second", etc.
- Not that people read out loud full (US) supreme court cites, but I remember hearing "Lawyer's Ed" (for L.Ed.) read out in full. If for some godawful reason you ever need to read out loud a supreme court cite, read out the U.S. citation and stop.

Another quirk you might see in oral arguments is that the date and court parenthetical sometimes gets emphasized in different ways. For instance, if I'm in the 6th Circuit and want to remind the panel that a certain case is it's own precedent (as opposed to what those whackjobs on the 9th Circuit might say), there are some verbal tics. "So as a panel of this circuit decided in Smith against Jones in 2007.." No need to read out the full cite (since no one should care) but the other parts get out that it's precedential and fairly recent.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 11:29 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

practicing attorney. nthing that you will almost never be speaking a citation aloud in court. i've maybe read a case citation out loud to a colleague who was looking it up on lexis or something, but not in court.

At oral argument before judges, it is normal to refer to cases by the last name of the first party only.

this is the general rule of thumb, but on occasion the first party name is a governmental entity. often, you will refer to the case by the second party name in this circumstance, because otherwise there would be a lot of "U.S." or "City of Chicago" etc.
posted by anthropomorphic at 2:20 PM on January 22, 2012

In Australia, the "v" is almost always pronounced "and".
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 12:36 AM on January 23, 2012

In Australia in civil cases it's pronounced "and" ("Smith and Smith") but in criminal cases it's pronounced "against" ("The Department of Public Prosecution against Smith"). Cite.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:17 AM on January 23, 2012

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