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It is common in for courts to cite case law. But why do they cite or note what their citations cite? Here's an example I just came across:

  • National Business Services, Inc. v. Wright, 2 F. Supp. 2d 701 (E.D. Pa. 1998) (citing Albert E. Price, Inc. v. Metzner, 574 F. Supp. 281, 289 (E.D. Pa.1983))

The first citation is to a specific page in a 1998 order from a U.S. District Court. Why parenthetically note how that in turn cites an earlier 1983 order from the same court? It's not like it lends more authority to the primary citation. (Or if it does, then why stop at the second layer of citation? If the 1983 order cited something earlier should it be listed as well?)

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    Can you cite the case in which the citation in question appears? Context may be relevant. Oct 22, 2022 at 3:13
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    @NateEldredge Probably not relevant – this question has occurred to me before – but this example I pulled from this entertaining finding for an injunction in Bimbo Bakeries USA, Inc. v. Botticella, 613 F.3d 102 (3d Cir. 2010).
    – feetwet
    Oct 22, 2022 at 3:48
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    A court ruling has one job: Don't get overturned on appeal. The purpose of every citation is to be airtight and beyond challenge. Oct 22, 2022 at 20:20
  • "If the 1983 order cited something earlier should it be listed as well?)" Every decision ever, cites something earlier. Multiple somethings. What's happening here is the first case which was cited applied the specific precedent in a context relevant to the decision which cited it, but the precedent itself wasn't established by that case, but an earlier one, in different circumstances. So it's not just any-old-thing being traced through the layers.
    – Beanluc
    Oct 23, 2022 at 20:54

5 Answers 5

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This practice varies depending on the court and/or judge's own style preferences and is often a judgment call based on what the author is trying to communicate with a citation.

I'll give a few reasons why a judgment might provide multiple layers of citations:

  • because the "deeper" source is a well-used precedent for a particular point, so it is meaningful for readers to know that the shallower source cited the well-accepted leading case on an issue
  • to show that a particular proposition has been long-accepted in a jurisdiction (your example might show that whatever proposition that is being cited has been used in this district over a 25-year period)
  • to show that a decision from a lower-level court is consistent with historical jurisprudence or with higher-level jurisprudence

One example:

[12] It is common ground between the parties that reasonableness is the applicable standard of review for the Independent Chairperson’s decision. I agree (Perron v Canada (Attorney General), 2020 FC 741 ("Perron") at para 45, citing Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65 ("Vavilov") at para 23; see also Schmit v Canada (Attorney General), 2016 FC 1293 at paras 19-20, and the cases cited therein).

Here, the author is trying to say this point is well settled. What is the standard of review for decisions of the Independent Chairperson? It is "reasonableness." This was stated in Perron, which itself cited Vavilov, Canada's leading case (since 2019) on how to select the standard of review. It is important to know that Perron relied on Vavilov rather than an obsolete framework for selecting the standard of review.

In your particular example, it seems that Albert E. Price, Inc. v. Metzner is or was a leading case in the 3rd Circuit on what constitues irreparable harm when seeking a preliminary injunction in copyright infringment cases (based on my very brief skim of how other judgments tend to use it). By noting that a judgment cited Metzner, this is a form of shorthand that is quite meaningful to practitioners in this area of law.

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    I find this dubious. If I wanted to share that something is a well settled matter I would simply say "here is a list of 5 well known cases, spanning 100 years, agreeing with this assessment" and provide a list of these cases. Why would you want to use citation links as a weird alternative? If the point is showing that the precedent is simply old, just citing the oldest case would be enough. Is this yet an other example of "law writing is just weird"?
    – GACy20
    Oct 24, 2022 at 7:37
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    @GACy20 Citation links are hardly weird and are relatively common outside legal writing (of course, they mostly exist in academic writing, but non-academic writings rarely need a lot of citations). Sure, citing 5 cases in a single citation link is likely "weird" and inutile; but the decisions usually do not cite 5 cases on a single point. You often want to show that a precedent is not only old but not obsolete. In addition, a recent case may be the step you need to link the application of a well-settled principle from an old case to the case in question's facts (as is the case here).
    – xngtng
    Oct 24, 2022 at 9:23
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    @GACy20 Rereading your comment, a confusion may be that not all precedents are valued in the same way (see the introductory part of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_landmark_court_decisions). The leading cases, often uncontested or not seriously contested, may state a general principle or test on a point of law. Other cases will apply the framework and make a decision for a fact pattern. The present case can then cite the case with a similar fact pattern, while specifying that it is following the settled principle in a landmark case.
    – xngtng
    Oct 24, 2022 at 9:30
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There can be several reasons for this practice. Often it is because the words quoted, or the key section of the quote, came originally from the other case, so the opinion gives credit there, but also acknowledge that this court got it from the newer case. So it may be a matter of credit.

It is often to show that a doctrine or test has remained steady across series of cases over time, which may well grant more authority than any one case does.

It can be to show the different contexts in which the same wording has been used, to show the breadth of the rule.

It allows one to trace a relevant line of cases, which can be more important than any one case.

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The primary citation from 1998 states in the language cited:

Harm is irreparable when it cannot be adequately compensated in damages, either because of the nature of the right that is injured, or because there exists no certain pecuniary standards for the measurement of damages. Albert E. Price, Inc. v. Metzner, 574 F. Supp. 281, 289 (E.D.Pa.1983).

The secondary citation from 1983 states in the language cited by the primary court.

As heretofore noted, the party seeking a preliminary injunction bears the burden of showing that it will be irreparably harmed pendente lite if an injunction is *289 not issued. See Continental Group, Inc. v. Amoco Chemical Corp., 614 F.2d 351, 359 (3d Cir.1980); Oburn v. Shapp, 521 F.2d 142, 151 (3d Cir.1975). The general rule in equity is that harm is "irreparable" when it cannot be adequately compensated in damages because of the nature of the injury itself or because of the nature of the right or property that is injured or because there exists no certain pecuniary standard for measurement of damages. See Luckenbach S.S. Co. v. Norton, 21 F. Supp. 707 (E.D.Pa.1937). Courts have also described irreparable injury as "substantial injury to a material degree coupled with the inadequacy of money damages." Tully v. Mott Supermarkets, Inc., 337 F. Supp. 834, 850 (D.N.J.1972), accord Judice's Sunshine Pontiac, Inc. v. General Motors, 418 F. Supp. 1212 (D.N.J.1976). Future injury of uncertain date and incalculable magnitude is "irreparable harm" and protection from such an injury is a legitimate end of injunctive relief. See Phillips v. Crown Central Petroleum Corp., 602 F.2d 616 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1074, 100 S. Ct. 1021, 62 L. Ed. 2d 756 (1979). Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, this Court has determined that Price has shown that it will be irreparably harmed if an injunction is not entered. This irreparable harm would result from the serious, long-lasting, and incalculable harm to Price's competitive position vis-a-vis the defendants if the defendants were allowed to continue marketing their infringing duck card boxes.

The secondary citation is to provide the source with the best overall legal analysis summarizing the case law in this area. The primary citation is to show that the older trial court opinion is still good law.

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    So as a matter of practice, does one typically jump to the last layer of a citation to check the authority and context? Or is it considered prudent to read through the full chain of citation offered?
    – feetwet
    Oct 22, 2022 at 3:54
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    @feetwet Depends upon why you want to know if the citation is good. If you are writing a responsive brief, you read though the full chain.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 24, 2022 at 0:54
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I've also seen this style of multiple-citation (though don't have an example handy) when a case has been going on for many years, possibly with one or more trips to an appeals court then back to the lower court in order to show that a particular bit of information was injected into the case during the first round through the lower court but that it has remained stable since. The current opinion (of the lower court) cites the appeals panel which cited the original lower court opinion. Or even a second round through the appeals panel citing the lower court citing the appeals panel citing the lower court.

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One possible reason is for convenience, but that isn't the most compelling reason by itself because one can always look up the cited argument to see what it cites.

When used as a tool for argumentation, it is evidently because precedent by itself is insufficient as a basis to make an argument authoritative. This fact can be highlighted for example when contrasting or dissenting opinions can be shown to exist--therefore even when considered in terms of precedent alone, it becomes necessary to show why one opinion might be regarded as "more authoritative" than another.

If an opinion cites another opinion, then at least there is some evidence of consensus of opinions, which adds to the appearance of weight beyond citing an opinion that does not cite another opinion (never mind that the judgment being actively rendered is creating more of the same, by passing an opinion upon an opinion).

Why stop at just two opinions deep rather than citing a third opinion on which the second is based? It may be assumed that a secondary opinion is sufficient to justify the strength of the argument and so further opinions are regarded as more redundant, or it may be that an earlier opinion is deliberately omitted because it might distract from or weaken the point that the current opinion is trying to make. It should be noted that there may be different cases cited in the primary opinion even as it pertains to the specific topic and so there may be even further discretion in choosing which opinion(s) to include in a nested citation.

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