By Citation: is the easiest way of locating a case. If you do not have a specific case in mind, secondary sources are a good way of locating a case relevant to your research. Once you have the citation, you can go to the relevant case reporter to locate the case, or enter the citation into Westlaw, Lexis, or one of the other appropriate databases.
By Party Name: While it is possible to search for a case citation by party name, unless it is a unique name it may not be the most efficient way of searching for case law. West's Federal Practice Digest 4th does include a Table of Cases, which is useful when you do not know the full citation to the case. It lists cases in alphabetical order indexed by both plaintiff and defendant names in case you only have the name of one party. For earlier cases you may need to consult earlier series of the Digest. You should also check the pocket parts and/or pamphlet supplements to more recent cases. Both Westlaw and LexisNexis also allow users to search by party name (passwords required).
By Topic/Full Text Searching: both Westlaw and Lexis allow for full-text searching of case law. It may be helpful to start with using the Digests when searching by topic. If you are looking for cases in a specific jurisdiction, start with the database containing that jurisdiction's case law. As with the digest, you should come up with a list of keywords relating to the topic you are researching prior to starting your search. You can conduct searches in one of two ways:
- Terms and Connectors: in a terms & connectors search, you use connectors such as "AND," "OR," and variations of "within" (e.g. w/p for within the same paragraph, w/s for within the same sentence) between the words and phrases that are relevant to your research.
- Natural Language: This is the more basic searching method in which you merely enter your relevant terms (without connectors). It is recommended that you place quotation marks around exact phrases when doing a Natural Language search. You should also consider adding synonyms of the major keywords you are searching.
Getting the most relevant cases using full-text searching takes practice. For training on effective full-text searching, please schedule a training session with the Westlaw and LexisNexis representatives.
Beyond Westlaw and Lexis
There are additional resources for finding case law at low or no cost. Not all of these offer pdf versions of cases, but may be a good place to start your research:
Bloomberg Law: allows you to search case law and dockets, and has its own citator system for updating cases.
Fastcase: provides access to cases, statutes, regulations, court rules and constitutions.
Findlaw.com: contains a searchable database of Supreme Court opinions since 1893 and an archive of opinion summaries from 2000-present. Also contains some U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals decisions from 1995 to present. These are not pdf versions.
Google Scholar: Google Scholar has added legal opinions to its offerings, including Supreme Court opinions since 1791 and U.S. appellate, district and bankruptcy opinions since 1923.
Government websites: the U.S. Government Printing Office's FDSys's website offers public access to select federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy court opinions from 2004 to present in pdf. Federal Court websites also offer public access to select opinions.
HeinOnline Supreme Court Library: offers a pdf library of the official U.S. Reports, Preliminary Prints, and Slip Opinions of the Supreme Court.
Legal Information Institute: The Cornell University Legal Information Institute offers opinions of the Supreme Court issued since May 1990.
Supremecourt.gov: offers electronic versions of the bound volumes of the U.S. Reports (vo. 502 - 552) and pdfs of opinions from the 2007 term to current term.
Remember that it is important to update case law to ensure it is still good law, some sites may not be comprehensive.