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: 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: 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: 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
Cases that are too recent, or that publishers do not feel are of significant importance may not be published in any of the reporters. While not officially "published" it may still be possible to find these opinions. These opinions are not binding, and are not intended to be used as precedent. If you need to find an unreported decision, there are a few places that provide access:
- West's Federal Appendix publishes unreported decisions by the federal Courts of Appeals.
- WestlawNext has select unreported cases are also available via a search of the federal cases database.
- Lexis does not have a separate database for unreported cases, but does include select unreported cases within a search of the federal cases database. Unpublished cases from the past ten years are also available in LexisNexis Communities.
- Court websites are a good source for more recent decisions
- Dockets: it may be possible to find a recent unpublished court opinion through a docket service. Westlaw offers some docket information, Bloomberg Law offers substantial access to the pacer docket.
For more information on unpublished opinions, see Joseph Gerken's article, A Librarian's Guide to Unpublished Judicial Opinions, 96(3) Law Library Journal 475 (Summer 2004).