Explaining the First Citation in Every Supreme Court Slip Opinion

The deep meaning of United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 (1906).

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

If you have ever read a Supreme Court opinion in its original form as released by the Supreme Court, you may have noticed this statement at the top of the first page:

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.

The law nerds among you may be wondering, what is the point of that citation?

Here's the scoop. United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 (1906), was a property dispute. Counsel for one of the parties relied in its argument on a precedent, Hawley v. Diller, 178 U.S. 476 (1900), as authority. But instead of relying on the Hawley case itself, counsel relied on the more favorable description of the case found in the Reporter's summary of the case. The Court in Detroit Timber & Lumber Co . admonished counsel for relying on the Reporter's summary:

[T]he headnote is not the work of the court, nor does it state its decision — though a different rule, it is true, is prescribed by statute in some States. It is simply the work of the reporter, gives his understanding of the decision, and is prepared for the convenience of the profession in the examination of the reports. . . . And finally the headnote is a misinterpretation of the scope of the decision.

So the citation to Detriot Timber & Lumber Co. provides case support for the idea that the Reporter's summary is not part of the Court's opinion and is only the Reporter's summary for the reader's convenience. A lawyer over a hundred years ago made the mistake of relying on the summary: Don't follow him.

Incidentally, the Court's criticism of the Reporter's work as "a misinterpretation of the scope of the decision" may have been easier to make given that the Reporter of Decisions at the time of Hawley had retired in 1902, two years after Hawley and four years before Detroit Timber & Lumber.


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  1. I assume the Reporter of Decisions does not write these summaries personally. A brief internet search also does not provide much more information on this specific task. Does s/he have a staff of stable law clerks, or are there temporary law clerks in this office for this purpose? Or do the clerks for each Justice assist with this task?

    Are the summaries reviewed/approved by the Justices?

  2. I’ve seen a couple of instances over the years where an attorney has cited to a case as authority based on a Westlaw headnote, where the headnote did not match at all with the actual opinion. Embarrassing for them; fun for me to point out. Always read the cases.

  3. The obvious decision, and the correct decision…but also I would assume the Court takes a look at the syllabus looking for anything wrong in it, right? So this mostly just saves time for the Court on applying its typical high level of scrutiny/time/effort to text that is redundant by design.

  4. Poor cite form for the reporter, not including the year in the cite to Detroit Timber.

  5. So the most cited Supreme Court case is cited for a trivial procedural point. What a paradox.

  6. That’s all interesting enough, but what I want to know is what does the syllabus of Detroit Timber & Lumber say?

    1. Nice.

  7. I used to repeat the trivia that Chevron is the most cited Supreme Court case. I was corrected that Detroit Lumber is actually the most cited.

  8. That’s much the reality of the celebrated Palsgraf case!

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