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Law Library Basics: U.S. Case Law

An introduction to the Law Library and Legal Research for students

Case Law Reporters

Federal case law will be divided between three branches: U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Courts of Appeal (Circuit Courts), and the U.S. District Courts. 

Case law is published in official and unofficial case law reporters, in chronological order. Supreme Court opinions are the only federal opinions published in official case reporters.  West is the major publisher of unofficial case reporters.

Case citations are the easiest way to retrieve a case (it is possible to find cases by party name, but may not be as exact).  Case citations are structured by volume number, reporter abbreviation, and first page of the case. 

U.S Supreme Court Cases: these opinions are binding on all courts in the U.S..  Supreme Court opinions are published in 3 different case law reporters: United States Reports (the official reporter) - "U.S.", Supreme Court Reporter (West) - "S. Ct.", and Lawyers' Edition (Lexis) - "L. Ed.". Sample citation for Brown v. Board of Ed. of Topeka: 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873.

Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal: There are 12 regional circuits, as well as a federal circuit for specialized cases.  Opinions are binding on the District Courts within the Circuit.  Circuit Court opinions are published in unofficial reporters (West): Federal Reporter - "F.", Federal Reporter Second Series - "F.2d" and Federal Reporter Third Series - "F.3d".

Federal District (Trial) Courts: There are 94 judicial districts, including at least one in each state, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and three U.S. Territories (Virgin Islands, Guam, and Northern Mariana Islands).  The District Court opinions are published in unofficial case reporters (West): Federal Supplement - "F. Supp." and Federal Supplement Second Series - "F. Supp.2d"

Earlier Federal Cases (dating before the Federal Reporter series) are available in Federal Case "F. Cas." bound volumes

Finding a Case

By Citation: is the easiest way of locating case law.  Case citations may be found by using secondary source materials.  Once you have one case citation, it is also possible to find more cases on the same topic by seeing what cases were cited by your case, and what cases cite to your case.

By Party Name: both Westlaw and LexisNexis allow users to search by party name.  However, unless it is a very unique name, this is not the most effective way of locating case law.

By Topic: Westlaw and LexisNexis allow for full-text searching to find a case on a topic.  For training on effective full-text searching, please schedule a training session with the Westlaw and LexisNexis representatives. 

Digests: A digest is a multi-volume index to the law organized by topic and "key number" classification system.  The topics are broad areas of law, with the "key numbers" providing a more narrow subtopic.  West's General Digest includes a "Descriptive-Word Index" to find authorities using words that describe the legal concept you are interested in.

For a more indepth look at case law research, see the Case Law Research Guide

Case Law Status Verification

The law is constantly evolving.  It is important to always check to make sure the case you have found is still good law, and to be aware of what other courts held on the relevant points of law.  This has often been referred to as "Shepardizing" a case.  There are two main case law citators to verify the status of your case - on LexisNexis, it is Shepards and on Westlaw it is Keycite.  Keyciting and Shepardizing are also a method for finding other cases and secondary sources relevant to your topic.

KeyCite: KeyCite will let you see the history of the case you are checking - earlier rulings in the same litigation, as well as subsequent history in the case - rulings after the opinion you are interested in; KeyCite will also provide a link to "Citing References" to view a list of cases, administrative materials, secondary sources, briefs, and other court documents that cite your case.

Shepards:also provides both prior and subsequent history of the case, as well as tabs for "Citing Decisions" for other cases which cite to your case, and "Citing Law Reviews, Treatises, . . . and other Secondary Sources" including court documents.

Both citators use signal indicators to let you know what type of subsequent history or treatment the case has received.  Red flags (Westlaw) or red stop signs (LexisNexis) will let you know that there has been negative treatment of your case - that part of the case was overruled or reversed.