LawProse Lesson #217: When do you capitalize “federal” and state”?

When do you capitalize federal and state? What about congressional and constitutional?      These words have been worked hard over the past week. Maybe they’ve earned capitals on that basis alone. But let’s see what the best typographic practice calls for—keeping in mind that professional editors today overwhelmingly prefer “down-style,” in which capitalization is sparingly used. Generally speaking, the word federal should be lowercase unless it’s part of a title or an organization’s name {federal assistance} {the federal government} {Federal Rules of Civil Procedure} {Federal Trade Commission}. Don’t capitalize state when using it as a common noun {She visited the New England states last month.} {The travel guide lists the most secluded beaches in the state of California.}. But do capitalize state if it is (1) part of a proper name {I live in Washington State (as opposed to Washington, D.C.).} {Sick of the hot Texas summers, Susan is moving to New York State (as opposed to New York City).}; (2) used in place of a particular state, or referring to a specific governmental body {Don has worked for the State of Kansas for 20 years.} {The State’s criminal penalties for drug crimes are too lenient.} {Contact the State for licensing requirements.}; or (3) a party to litigation {The State filed a response yesterday.}. As a matter of style, you’ll find many recent U.S. Supreme Court cases in which both words are capitalized. That may be a holdover from 18th-century style, in which many common nouns are capitalized. The adjectives congressional and constitutional are not capitalized because their corresponding nouns, Congress and Constitution, are not exclusively proper nouns {A vigorous daily walk is good for your constitution.} {The student body held a congress to discuss tuition increases.} {the constitutional basis for imposing congressional term limits}. But adjectives that are derived from words that exist only as proper nouns should be capitalized {American}. Down-style is easier to read: it emphasizes only words that require emphasis. In legal writing, there is an unfortunate tendency toward contagious capitalization. But it’s a curable condition. Further reading: Garner’s Modern American Usage 131–32, 186, 193 (3d ed. 2009). Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 133–34, 203, 209, 354 (3d ed. 2011). The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 2, at 61–77 (3d ed. 2013). The Chicago Manual of Style § 8.50, at 406–07, § 8.61, at 412–13 (16th ed. 2010).

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