In the American legal system, judicial decisions are primary sources of law, in addition to the Constitution, statutes, and regulations.
The United States has parallel court systems, one at the federal level, and another at the state level. Both systems are divided into trial courts and appellate courts. Generally, trial courts determine the relevant facts of a dispute and apply law to these facts, while appellate courts review trial court decisions to ensure the law was applied correctly.
Court opinions create legal precedents that guide judges in deciding similar future cases.
The decisions of the highest court in a court system (for example, the U.S. Supreme Court in the federal system) create "mandatory" precedent that must be followed by lower courts in that jurisdiction. Similarly, intermediate appellate courts (such as the federal circuit courts of appeal) create mandatory precedent for the courts below them.
Appellate decisions are often printed in serially published books known as reporters. Trial court decisions, in contrast, are published only occasionally.
In recent years, both appellate and trial court decisions have become more readily available via Web-based electronic publication. The following sites provide free electronic access or links to court decisions:
Cornell Legal Information Institute: http://www.law.cornell.edu/opinions.html (external link)
Findlaw: www.findlaw.com (external link)
LexisOne: www.lexisone.com (external link) (registration required)
Law Library of Congress's Guide to Law Online: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/guide.html
Also, links to the Web sites of Federal courts, some of which include court decisions, may be found on the Web site of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts: http://www.uscourts.gov/courtlinks/.
Reporters are published chronologically, as opinions are issued. Citations are needed to identify where opinions have been published.
The typical form of a citation includes (1) the names of the lead parties (the plaintiff (or appellant) versus the defendant (or appellee), (2) a number representing the volume, (3) an abbreviation of the name of the reporter, (4) a second number providing the first page of the opinion, and (5) in parentheses, an abbreviation for the court and the year the opinion was issued. For example, the citation:
Goodman v. Bowdoin College, 380 F.3d 33 (1st Cir. 2004)
identifies a decision in a case between Goodman and Bowdoin College that was published in volume 380 of the Federal Reporter, Third Series (identified by the abbreviation "F.3d"), beginning on page 33. The citation also shows the opinion was issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (abbreviated as 1st Cir.), in 2004.
The rules governing citation format are found in The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation (18th ed. 2005). A useful online introduction to citation format, with examples and illustrations, is Peter W. Martin, Introduction to Basic Legal Citation (Legal Info. Inst. 2006 ed.), at http://www.law.cornell.edu/citation/ (external link).
New citation formats are developing to account for electronic publication of decisions, which provide information on the database or Internet location of the opinion. In addition, "vendor and media neutral" systems of citation have been adopted in some jurisdictions in response to the rise of multiple publication formats. These citations contain the party names, the year, the court, a sequential number, and when appropriate a paragraph number. For example, the citation:
State v. Evans, 2004 WI 84, ¶21
is a vendor-neutral citation that refers to an opinion in the case of the State of Wisconsin against Evans, the 84th opinion issued by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the year 2004. The "¶21" indicates that the 21st paragraph in the opinion contains the proposition at issue.
Federal Court Decisions
Supreme Court decisions are published in three print publications: the United States Reports, cited as "U.S."; the Supreme Court Reporter, cited as "S. Ct."; and the United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers' Edition, cited as "L. Ed." and "L. Ed. 2d." These are available in Rows 28 and 29 of the Law Library Reading Room.
Electronically, the Supreme Court places recent decisions, as well as bound volumes of the United States Reports back to volume 502 (October 1991 term), on its Web site at: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/opinions.html (external link).
Supreme Court decisions are also available at the following sites:
Findlaw (full coverage from 1893 to present): http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/supreme.html (external link)
LexisOne (full coverage from beginning of Court to present): http://www.lexisone.com (external link) (registration required)
HeinOnline, a subscription database available on computers within the Library of Congress (full coverage from beginning of Court to present): http://www.heinonline.org/HOL/Welcome (external link).
Opinions issued by the federal circuit courts of appeal (the intermediate level of appeal in the federal system) are published in the Federal Reporter, the first, second and third series of which are cited as "F.", "F.2d," and "F.3d," respectively. The FederalReporter is available in Rows 29 and 30 of the Law Library Reading Room. Opinions issued by federal circuit courts in recent years may also be available on the Web, at the following sites:
Cornell Legal Information Institute: http://straylight.law.cornell.edu/federal/opinions.html (external link)
LexisOne: http://ww.lexisone.com (external link) (registration required)
Also, the Law Library of Congress's Guide to Law Online, http://www.loc.gov/law/help/guide/federal/usjudic.html, provides links to Web sites at which federal circuit court decisions are published.
Occasionally, opinions issued by federal district courts (the trial court level in the federal system) are published in a reporter known as the Federal Supplement. The Federal Supplement is cited as "F. Supp." or "F. Supp. 2d," and may be found in Rows 30 and 31 of the Law Library Reading Room.
Federal district court opinions are only rarely freely available on the Web. The Web site of the Cornell Legal Information Institute, at: http://straylight.law.cornell.edu/federal/opinions.html (external link), may be consulted to locate those opinions that are available.
State Court Decisions
Appellate decisions of state courts are often published in official state reporters, as well as the following regional reporters published by West Publishing Co.:
Atlantic Reporter (A. & A.2d)
North Eastern Reporter (N.E. & N.E.2d)
North Western Reporter (N.W. & N.W.2d)
Pacific Reporter (P., P.2d & P.3d)
Southern Reporter (So. & So.2d)
South Eastern Reporter (S.E. & S.E.2d)
South Western Reporter (S.W. & S.W.2d)
A map showing the states as they are placed in the various regional reporters is available in the front of the reporters, and at: http://paralegal.westlaw.com/research/mapsnatl.asp (external link).
Both the first and second series of the Atlantic Reporter and the South Eastern Reporter as well as the second (and higher) series of the other regional reporters, may be found in Rows 33 to 37 and 64 to 66 of the Law Library Reading Room. The other regional reporters' first series are available on microform. The Law Library shelves some state reporters in the state alcove section, Rows 42 to 63, while other state reporters are shelved in the closed stacks and may be requested at the Circulation Desk.
State court opinions may be accessed through the Cornell Legal Information Institute Web site: http://www.law.cornell.edu/opinions.html (external link). Findlaw has compiled a collection of state resources at: http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/index.html#statelaw (external link).
LexisOne offers free state appellate court cases from the past five years, at: http://www.lexisone.com/ (external link) (registration required).
The Law Library of Congress's Guide to Law Online, at http://www.loc.gov/law/help/guide/states.html, provides a state-by-state guide to legal information, including links to Web sites at which state court decisions are published.
State court decisions are often cited by reference to the official state reporter, the regional reporter, in some jurisdictions a "vendor and media neutral" citation, and sometimes all three. For example, the citation:
Mayberry v. Volkswagen of Am., Inc., 2005 WI 13, ¶15, 278 Wis.2d 39, 692 N.W.2d 226
provides the name of the case, a vendor and media neutral citation (a reference to paragraph 15 of the 13th opinion issued by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2005), the state reporter citation (which indicates the case may be found in volume 278 of the Wisconsin Reports, Second Series beginning on page 39) and the regional reporter citation (which indicates the case may be found in volume 692 of the North Western Reporter, Second Series beginning on page 226).
Digests contain brief excerpts of case facts or court opinions and are classified by subject. Because case reporters are published chronologically, digests are often necessary to locate opinions relevant to a particular topic. Digests may be used to find the citation to cases when only a subject area or certain facts of the case are known. Federal, state, and some regional and topical digests are available. Federal and regional digests (when available) are shelved next to each reporter series, while some individual state digests are located in the Law Library Reading Room state alcove section, Rows 42 to 63.
The digests arrange topics alphabetically in multi-volume sets, and then further subdivide subjects by key numbers. A subject's topical classification and key number may be determined by consulting the digest's Descriptive-Word Index. One digest publisher, West Publishing Co., distributes a comprehensive series of digests, and maintains consistent subject classifications across all of its various digests. Once the appropriate topic and "key number" are identified, cases on that subject may be located using that key number in the federal digest or any regional or state digest.
If the name of a case and the court in which that case was decided is known, a citation may be identified in the Table of Cases volume of the appropriate digest. Supplementary pocket parts (placed in the back of bound volume) or separate interim pamphlets are used to update the digest service and should be checked to ensure currentness.
Last Updated: 08/07/2012