Legal shorthand

Legal shorthand

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How Supreme Court decisions get their nicknames

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the affirmative action caseFisher v. University of Texas at Austin on Monday, but most observers have, and always will, refer to the case simply asFisher.

It’s the same with other iconic legal decisions, like Miranda v. Arizona (Miranda), Brown v. Board of Education (Brown) and Plessy v. Ferguson (Plessy). Like any other field, the law has its own shorthand for practitioners to make communication easier for those in the know and this is an example.

Enrique Carrasco
Enrique Carrasco

“Among lawyers, professors and others in the profession, it’s expected that those involved would know the major cases,” says Enrique Carrasco, a University of Iowa law professor. “It would be unusual and awkward for those ‘in the biz’ to informally cite the entire case name. Sort of uncool.”

James Tomkovicz, a law professor and Supreme Court analyst, speculates that nicknames go mostly to the well known cases.

“I do think that only the famous cases have a shot at shorthand status, because there is a good reason to desire a shorter appellation,” says Tomkovicz, who frequently submits amicus briefs to the court on criminal law matters. “It’s uneconomical to have to repeat Brown v. Board of Education every time you want to refer to the opinion, which is often because it’s so famous.”

There is no formal mechanism for giving a decision a nickname, says Todd Pettys, a constitutional law scholar. The nickname process is more organic, depending on how the decisions are referred to by lawyers, scholars, historians, journalists, and others.

He says the general rule of thumb for cases between a private party and a governmental entity is to go with the nongovernmental name, since the governmental name likely appears in lots of lawsuits, while the nongovernmental name does not.

Todd Pettys
Todd Pettys

“So we say ‘Brown,’ since ‘Board of Education’ wouldn’t distinguish it from the other cases in which the board appeared as a litigant,” he says.

That’s why Gideon v. Wainwright is called Gideon. Wainwright was Louie Wainwright, an official in Florida’s Department of Corrections for more than two decades. Prisoners in Florida who filed a lawsuit against the prison system during Wainwright’s tenure—and prisoners file lots of lawsuits against prison systems—likely filed it against Wainwright, depending on the nature of the suit. That Wainwright is the named defendant in many lawsuits, so referring to the decision as ‘Wainwright’ would do little to distinguish it from other lawsuits in which he was a litigant. In fact, two of those other lawsuits—Ford v. Wainwright and Wainwright v. Sykes—also made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

But some decisions deviate from this shorthand. For instance, Roe v. Wade is referred to by its full name as often as by a shorthand. The decision is tricky, Pettys says, because “Roe” isn’t the private party’s real name (it’s Norma McCorvey), which may present problems when using it as shorthand.

“You can’t go with ‘Wade,’ either, because that’s the government’s side of the litigation, and ‘Wade’ thus presumably shows up in multiple case names,” he says. “But because the case has become so famous, we either say the name that comes first in the sequence or we just say the whole case name.”

Another exception is Bush v. Gore, the decision that decided the 2000 presidential election that is almost always referred to by its full name. Pettys speculates it’s because the name is still freighted with so much recent history, with two Bushes and Gore having been significant players on the national stage over the past 32 years.

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Tom Snee, University Communication and Marketing, office: 319-384-0010; cell: 319-541-8434
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