Every law student, typically during their first year of study, learns to cite a variety of sources, whether in drafting briefs, memos, and other practice-based documents, or in composing the academic footnote for a scholarly paper. The drudgery of identifying the appropriate rule in The Bluebook (or, alternatively, the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation) and applying that rule to the cited source is a tedious yet necessary process of the legal craft (and one with real-world consequences; see Howell v. Hawk, 750 N.E.2d 452, 460 n. 3 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001)).*

The case citation, arguably the most familiar of legal references, consists of (in the following order and in its most basic form) the names of the parties to the case, the reporter volume, the abbreviated name of the reporter, the page on which the case begins, the page from which material is quoted or referenced, and a parenthetical designation of the court and year in which the case was decided. So, for example, in City of South Bend versus Kimsey, a case decided by the Indiana Supreme Court in 2003, published in volume 781 of the second series of the Northeastern Reporter beginning at page 683, a quotation from the opinion found at page 687 would be cited in a footnote, according to Bluebook Rule 10, as follows:

City of South Bend v. Kimsey, 781 N.E.2d 683, 687 (Ind. 2003).

This citation seems straightforward enough; however, such formatting simplicity fades in a variety of other contexts, such as when using in-text or short-form citations (Rules 2.2(a) and 10.9) or in referencing specific courts and jurisdictions (Rule 10.4), a case’s prior and subsequent history (Rule 10.7), or pending and unreported cases (Rule 10.8.1). Additionally, many courts have their own rules on citation form, which may differ from those found in The Bluebook (see, e.g., Ind. R. App. Proc. 22).

Occasionally, the unsuspecting law student will encounter a case citation of an especially peculiar character. These citations include, in addition to the standard attributes described above, a second parenthetical designation consisting of an auxiliary volume number and an obscure abbreviated name: 

Turner v. Bank of North America, 4 U.S. (4 Dall.) 8 (1799).

Green v. Biddle, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 1 (1823).

“What is this anomaly? you may ask. A cursory inspection of The Bluebook sheds some light on the matter: According to Rule 10.3.2, “for United States Supreme Court reporters through 90 U.S. (23 Wall.) and a few early state reporters,” citations must include “. . . the name of the reporter’s editor and the volume of that series.

[F]or United States Supreme Court reporters through 90 U.S. (23 Wall.) and a few early state reporters . . ., give the name of the reporter’s editor and the volume of that series.
— The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation R. 10.3.2, at 96 (19th ed. 2010).

Still, other questions remain. What made the reporting editor so special to have his name associated with a volume of bound cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court? Moreover, why did this practice end in 1874 (the final year of cases published in volume 90)? 

For the countless number of inquiring minds intrigued by these questions, this is the story of the origins of Bluebook Rule 10.3.2. In the narrative that follows, we witness the rise and subsequent fall of the nominative reporter, and how one man—a humble jurist from the State of Indiana—boldly entered a profession undergoing radical transition, fully aware that he would never achieve the legacy of his predecessors. This is the story of William T. Otto, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first “anonymous” reporter.


Today, by federal statute, the U.S. Supreme Court publishes its opinions in an official set of casebooks called the United States Reports. Under 28 U.S.C. § 411(a) “[t]he decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States shall be printed, bound, and distributed in the preliminary prints and bound volumes of the United States Reports as soon as practicable after rendition, to be charged to the proper appropriation for the judiciary.” The statutory officer responsible for preparing the Court’s decisions for publication is the Reporter of Decisions.

The reporter shall, under the direction of the Court or the Chief Justice, prepare the decisions of the Court for publication in bound volumes and advance copies in pamphlet installments.
— 28 U.S.C. § 673(c)

Supreme Court opinions are disseminated to the public electronically and in print. Prior to the issuance of bound volumes, the Courts decisions appear in three temporary forms: (1) bench opinions, which are transmitted immediately following the Courts decisions and include majority or plurality opinions, any concurring or dissenting opinions, and a prefatory syllabus; (2) slip opinions, which are issued several days later and contain corrections to the bench opinions; and (3) preliminary prints, or advance pamphlets, which contain the Courts opinions and the announcements, tables, indices, and other features that form the U.S. Reports. Prior to final publication of the bound reports, the Reporter and his or her staff review the opinions and other materials in a final editing and indexing process to ensure accuracy of citations and quotations and compliance with the Court’s stylistic rules.

Despite the important role the Reporter of Decisions plays in the modern judicial system, the idea of preserving a written record of the Courts opinions was not a foregone conclusion at the time of the Nation’s founding. During the colonial period, the decisions of American courts were rarely published at all. In practice, lawyers relied on English reports or personal notebooks of local decisions. With independence from England, members of the bench and bar recognized the need to produce a distinctly American corpus juris.  By recording judicial opinions and publishing case law, American jurists envisioned a normative vernacular built upon an original body of legal precedent. However, it was not until 1789with the publication of Ephraim Kirbys first volume of Connecticut Reports—that the process of legal domestication through case reporting materialized. Even then, the individual efforts of reporters lacked financial backing from state or federal government.

By the early 1800s, lawmakers had taken steps to expedite the reporting of cases. This included statutory requirements for judges to commit their opinions to writing, rather than merely declare them orally. For example, an 1808 Indiana Territorial act required judges to “make up and deliver the opinion of the court . . . in writing . . . upon all questions and points of law.” An additional measure involved the appointment of official court reporters, typically (though not always) by statute. An 1804 Massachusetts act authorized the governor to appoint someone learned in the law whose duty it was to obtain true and authentic reports of the [Supreme Judicial Courts] decision[s] . . . and [who] shall annually publish the same. At the federal level, Congress enacted legislation in 1817 directing the Supreme Court to appoint an official reporter who would “print and publish” the Courts decisions “or cause [those decisions] to be printed and published” for distribution to the Secretary of State, various other government officials, and the Library of Congress (3 Stat. 376).

The Rise and Fall of the Nominative” Reporter

Unlike their modern counterparts, early Supreme Court reporters lacked official support for their endeavors. For nearly thirty years following the creation of the federal government, the Courts decisions were published by independent reporters who relied on private sales as compensation for their efforts. These editors, whose names adorn the first ninety volumes of Supreme Court Reports, are known collectively as the “nominative” reporters (the Library of the U.S. Supreme Court maintains a complete list of cases by reporter volume and date of decision).  

In 1791, Alexander James Dallas, a member of the Philadelphia bar, recognized the need for a reporter of the Court’s decisions. His compilation of cases from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, published the year prior, became the first volume of United States Reports (1 Dall.). Opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court first appeared in his second volume (2 Dall.). Here, notes legal historian Lawrence Friedman, quietly and unobtrusively, began that magnificent series of reports, extending in an unbroken line down to the present, that chronicles the work of the worlds most powerful court.

In this volume, quietly and unobtrusively, began that magnificent series of reports, extending in an unbroken line down to the present, that chronicles the work of the world’s most powerful court.
— Lawrence M. Friedman, A History of American Law 242 (3d. ed. 2005).

Dallas’s efforts were purely entrepreneurial as he received no government compensation for his venture. The quality of his work, however, proved inconsistent. His reportsa total of four, containing such landmark cases as Chisolm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419 (1793); and Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 386 (1798)were often characterized by omissions, errors, and publishing delays. His last volume, for example, containing the Court’s decisions through its August 1800 term, became publicly available in 1807. Despite these setbacks, however, Dallas’s accomplishments—virtually without precedent in American law—set the stage for his successors. Dallas retired from the position in 1800, when the Court moved from Philadelphia to its new home in Washington, D.C.

In 1801, William Cranch—the nephew of President John Adams—became the Court’s second reporter, serving in that capacity for fourteen years while acting as Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Circuit Court. Like his predecessor, Cranch pursued his reporting work as a private venture. Pecuniary interests aside, the motivation for his work appears to have emerged in part from a strong interest in contributing to the growth of American jurisprudence. As he notes in the preface to his first volume,

[m]uch of that uncertainty of the law, which is so frequently, and perhaps so justly, the subject of complaint in this country, may be attributed to the want of American reports.
Many of the causes, which are the subject of litigation in our courts, arise upon circumstances peculiar to our situation and laws, and little information can be derived from English authorities to lead to a correct decision.
Uniformity, in such cases, cannot be expected where the judicial authority is shared among such a vast number of independent tribunals, unless the decisions of the various courts are made known to each other. Even in the same court, analogy of judgment cannot be maintained if its adjudications are suffered to be forgotten. It is therefore much to be regretted that so few of the gentlemen of the bar have been willing to undertake the task of reporting.

In addition to incorporating tables, indices, and annotations—features introduced by his predecessor—Cranch supplemented the Court’s opinions with “faithful summar[ies] of the arguments of counsel” and, in his first and fourth volumes, extensive appendices of notes. However, considering the added expense of printing such material, his attempts at scholarship often seemed gratuitous to those legal practitioners in demand of concise and timely information at low cost.

During Cranch’s time as Reporter, the Court’s role in the framework of national government had expanded dramatically, due in large part to its decision in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137 (1803). And Joseph Story, appointed to the Court as Associate Justice in 1811, brought a strong advocate in advancing American jurisprudence through prompt and accurate reporting. Cranch, however, largely failed to meet these expectations. By 1815, not a single case had been published since the Court’s February 1810 term, leaving 131 decisions unavailable to the bench and bar. The need for an official, salaried Reporter seemed the obvious course of action to accommodate the Courts expanding docket and increasing demand from the national bar.

In 1816, when Congress officially established the Office of Reporter, the Court appointed Henry Wheaton to the new position. In addition to any profits he made from the sales of his reports, Wheaton enjoyed an annual stipend of $1,000. The reason for this, according to Chief Justice John Marshall, was that “the publication of the decisions of the Supreme Court will remain on a very precarious footing if the reporter is to depend solely on the sales of his work for a reimbursement of the expenses which must be incurred in preparing it, and for his own compensation.” Consequently, “[t]he patronage of the Government is believed to be necessary to the secure and certain attainment of the object.”

Altogether, Wheaton published twelve volumes of reports, which included such landmark cases as McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819); Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 518 (1819); Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543 (1823); Gibbons v. Ogden, 21 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1 (1824); and The Antelope, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 66 (1825).

Wheaton’s reports received a favorable response among members of the bar, at least from those who could afford them. In his devotion to improving the law through scholarly excellence and elaborate commentary, he unwittingly drove the cost of his reports well beyond the reach of the common practitioner, ultimately resulting in meager sales.

Whereas Wheaton thrived on scholarly reporting, his successor, Richard Peters, Jr., found success through pragmatic, entrepreneurial determination. “In short,” writes legal scholar Craig Joyce, “Peters’ plan for his Reports resembled the man himself: brisk, practical and determined to avoid unremunerative detours into esoteric scholarship.”

Perhaps most reflective of Peters’ resourcefulness was his Condensed Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court of the United States. Published in six volumes between 1830 and 1834, the Condensed Reports, Peters wrote in his proposal, published in the preface to his first volume,  “contain[ed] all the cases adjudged in the Supreme Court of the United States, from 1790 to 1827 inclusive, in a form which will make it authority in all judicial tribunals. . . . The whole opinion delivered by the Court in every case will be given in the language of the Court; and such a statement or abstract of the facts of the cause will be made, as will fully and accurately exemplify the decisions.” He adds, 

[m]any questions which have been brought up in those cases are of usual occurrence in the common transactions and business of life; and are of very general application and influence. Considerations growing out of these circumstances, impose the necessity, that the law thus general, thus established, thus supreme, should be universally known. That there should be found but few copies of the reports of the cases decided in the Supreme Court of the United States, in many large districts of our country in which there are federal and state judicial tribunals, is known to be a frequent fact. . . . It will not be denied, that these circumstances are the consequences of the heavy expense which must be incurred by the purchase of the three volumes of the Reports of Mr. Dallas, the nine volumes of Mr. Cranch, and the twelve of Mr. Wheaton’s Reports.

On the issue of copyright, Peters anticipated no “interfere[nce] with the interests of those gentlemen who have preceded the Reporter in the station he has the honour to hold. To the contrary, [t]he legal rights of the proprietors of those most able and valuable works, where they exist, will be carefully respected. To ensure against potential infringement [n]othing will be inserted in the contemplated publication, but matters which are of public record, and which from their nature and other circumstances, are not the subject of literary property. So far as Peters was concerned, [t]he opinions of the Court [were] public property. 

Wheaton vehemently disagreed. And in May of 1831, as sales of Peters’ Condensed Reports soared, Wheaton filed suit in the Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, seeking an injunction to prevent further printing and sales of the Condensed Reports (Dallas had died in 1817 and Cranch, who initially protested, ultimately settled in exchange for fifty copies of the abridged volumes). On appeal, nearly three years later, the controversy ended with the Supreme Court’s decision in Wheaton v. Peters, 33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 591 (1834). In his opinion, Justice McLean announced, for a unanimous Court, “that no reporter has or can have any copyright in the written opinion delivered by this court; and that the judges thereof cannot confer on an reporter any such right.”

Following the decision in Wheaton, Peters remained in office for another nine years. Despite the success of his Condensed Reports, however, his annual volumes of Supreme Court reports received less than favorable reviews, often criticized for lack of clarity in summarizing the Court’s decisions. Eventually, personal conflicts with several of the Justices resulted in Peters’ termination in 1843. 

Benjamin Chew Howard, hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, succeeded Peters as reporter, serving in that position for nearly eighteen years. According to one source, Howard’s twenty-three volumes of reports exemplified “clarity, diction, and thoroughness.” Among those cases on which he reported included Luther v. Borden, 48 U.S. (7 How.) 1 (1849); The Passenger Cases, 48 U.S. (7 How.) 283 (1849); and Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857). As to the last of these cases, the infamous Dred Scott decision, Howard openly expressed his disdain for the Courts ruling:

[I]t is the opinion of these men, that this free government was established on purpose to extend the blessings of the glorious institution of slavery. . . . The country will feel the consequences of the decision more deeply and more permanently, in the loss of confidence in the sound judicial integrity and strictly legal character of their tribunals, than in anything beside; and this perhaps may well be accounted the greatest political calamity that this country, under our forms of government, could sustain.

Howard resigned his position as reporter in 1861 to pursue (what would be) an unsuccessful bid for governor of Maryland. 

Jeremiah Black, a former U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of State under President James Buchanan, failed confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court bench by single vote in 1861. Instead, he became the Court’s reporter, a position he held for only two terms, editing two volumes of reports before resigning in 1864. 

The last of the nominative reporters, John William Wallace, came to the Court in 1864, serving for over ten years. During his tenure, he published 23 volumes of reports, encompassing such landmark cases as Ex Parte Milligan, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 2 (1866); and the Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36 (1873).

In the decade following the Civil War, the Office of Reporter underwent several changes. In 1866 Congress granted the reporter a period of eight months in which to publish decisions and raised the officer’s annual salary to $2,500, provided that he “deliver to the Secretary of the Interior for distribution . . . three hundred copies” of the annual reports. 14 Stat. 51, 205 (1866). Eight years later Congress appropriated $25,000 for the costs of publication. 18 Stat. 204 (1874).  With reporting fully financed by the federal government, all published reports, from volume 91 forward, displayed the title “United States Reports,” officially supplanting the practice of designation by reporter.

The first of these “non-nominative” reporters, William Tod Otto, quietly assumed public office in late fall of 1875.

WILLIAM T. OTTO: The U.S. Supreme Courts First Anonymous Reporter

Otto was born on January 19, 1816, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to John Conrad Otto and Eliza Tod. He received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania in 1833 and, upon completing his legal studies three years later, moved to Brownstown, Indiana, to practice law. In 1844 he was elected Judge of the Second Judicial Circuit Court, a position he held for eight years. “On the bench,” according to an early biographical account, “he was autocratic and austere, brooking no familiarity, but outside of official life he displayed a sense of humor and a pleasing personality.”

In addition to his judicial obligations, Otto served as an associate professor of law at Indiana University from 1847 to 1852. Upon retiring from the bench, Otto moved to New Albany where he resumed private practice, arguing frequently before the Indiana Supreme Court. In 1855 he served as counsel for appellant in Beebe v. State, 6 Ind. 501 (1855), successfully challenging the constitutionality of the state liquor law. In arguing before the court or jury, historian Lewis Baird wrote in 1909, . . . [Otto] went direct to the controlling points of the case, and came down on his adversary with crushing power like an avalanche.

Over the course of the next decade, Otto rose to prominence at both the state and national political levels. Despite an unsuccessful run for Indiana Attorney General in 1858, he served as a state delegate to the Republican National Convention two years later. In 1863 President Lincoln appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Interior, a position Otto held for eleven years and during which time he assumed a leading role in American Indian affairs. A personal friend of Lincolns, Otto was among those at the president’s deathbed on April 15, 1865. 

"Bachelder, Alonzo & David Print of Lincoln's deathbed" (1909). Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana. Otto is standing directly above Lincoln (slightly to the left).

During this period, Otto remained an active member of the bar. In 1873 he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that Section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, as amended by statute in 1867, precluded the Court from reviewing a state court’s interpretation of state law. As originally enacted, the Judiciary Act of 1789 included an express prohibition on the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction to review state court rulings on state law issues. The 1867 amendment, however, contained no such proscription. The Supreme Court agreed with Otto’s arguments, holding in Murdock v. City of Memphis, 87 U.S. (20 Wall.) 590 (1875) that it lacked jurisdiction to review state court decisions resting on adequate and independent state grounds.

"William T. Otto, Reporter of Decisions, U.S. Supreme Court" (ca. 1860-65). Image via U.S. National Archives.

During his tenure as Reporter of Decisions, Otto completed seventeen volumes of U.S. Reports (U.S. 91-107), encompassing such cases as Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1877); Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130 (1878); The Trade-Mark Cases, 100 U.S. 82 (1879); Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1880); and United States v. Harris, 106 U.S. 629 (1883).

In 1876, the American Law Review published an extensive commentary on the two first volumes of the Supreme Courts new series of Reports, the “result of the labor of Mr. Otto, the new reporter.” The editors, having reviewed the volumes with great satisfaction and pleasure, commended Otto for his improvements on the Courts annual publication:

The reporter has carefully avoided the faults of his predecessor; and his reports bear the marks of faithful and conscientious work, successfully performed. The praise which belongs to him is much greater than it would have been if he had only to follow an example of good reporting. But we would not have it supposed that we are pleased with these merely because they are an improvement on former volumes of Supreme Court Reports. On the contrary, we think the work, tested by any other standard, is exceedingly well done; and these volumes are in themselves highly creditable to the reporter. The statements and the head-notes are generally clear and precise, and are expressed in simple and accurate language; the head-notes also have the merit, not always belonging to head-notes, of being easy to understand.

While acknowledging “little in Mr. Otto’s work which we should care to see different,” the editors offered an small measure of constructive criticism:

We are inclined to think that, a little too often, the whole report consists only of the judgment of the court. In most of these instances, the court has itself undertaken to state the case in the judgment; and it would be hard, under such circumstances, to blame the reporter for not trying to do it better himself. Still, it might sometimes be done. . . . [O]ne or two pages of statement by the reporter would have made [certain cases] much more intelligible to the reader. 

We mention these things, the editors made sure to point out, not because we wish to find fault, but because we find in Mr. Otto’s work so much excellence and so much care to avoid the faults of others, that we think that criticism may usefully descend to small details.

In 1883, following the completion of 107 U.S., Otto resigned from his position as Reporter. After his departure, he remained briefly in public office, serving as U.S. delegate to the Universal Postal Congress in 1885, and eventually returned to private practice.  On November 7, 1905, at the age of ninety, Otto died at his birthplace in Philadelphia. He was later buried in Brownstown, Indiana.     


Otto’s appointment to the Office of Reporter in 1875 ushered in a new era of reporting, one marked by anonymity and public accountability. The new “anonymous” reporters, notes Craig Joyce, “like the corps that preceded them, included lawyers of outstanding ability and devotion to the work of the Court.” However, he adds, “[t]heir names . . . are remembered in association with particular volumes of reports, if at all, only by direct descendants and antiquarians—and even their office has receded from the consciousness of members of the bar and students of the law.” 

Even the Court’s nominative reporters, despite the long-standing prominence of their published namesakes, have fared only slightly better than their anonymous successors in the course of history. Prior to the 1955 publication of the ninth edition of The Bluebook, which introduced the precursor to Rule 10.3.2, citations to Supreme Court reports consisted of the reporter’s name alone, with the jurisdiction (U.S.) confined to parentheses (see, e.g., A Uniform System of Citation R. I.A.3, at 5 (8th ed. 1949)). The system of using U.S. numericals, with a parenthetical reference to the now-demoted reporter, prompted an adverse reaction from several prominent jurists. Justice Felix Frankfurter, for example, in submitting his article for publication in volume 69 of the Harvard Law Review, insisted his case citations follow the customary form, citing the “need for preserving ancient traditions.” Today, by contrast, while court rules often refer to The Bluebook as the default guide to citation form (thus incorporating Rule 10.3.2), the practice of omitting the reporters name altogether occurs with relative frequency in other forums (see here and here). 

While modern Supreme Court reporters remain relatively obscure to the public, they continue to play an essential role in chronicling and disseminating the law of the land. They also persist in breaking new ground. In 2011, Christine Luchok Fallon, the Court’s sixteenth Reporter of Decisions, became the first woman to undertake the position.

In leading the way for his “anonymous” successors-in-office, William Tod Otto stands as a model public servant in improving and extending “that magnificent series of reports” to the herald of today’s U.S. Supreme Court.

*The author would like to thank his first year legal writing instructor, Prof. Jonathan Warner, for his constructive introduction to the citation process. The author would also like to extend commendations to his colleagues on volume 25 of the Indiana International & Comparative Law Reviewespecially Paul Babcock, Editor-in-Chief; and Peter Elliott, Executive Managing Editor—in sharing the hardships of mastering this process.


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