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.
In the US legal system, judicial decisions create legal precedents that guide judges in deciding similar future cases. The decisions of the highest court in a jurisdiction create mandatory precedent that must be followed by lower courts in that jurisdiction. For example, the US Supreme Court creates binding precedent that all other federal courts must follow. Similarly, intermediate appellate courts (such as the federal circuit courts of appeal) create mandatory precedent for the courts below them.
Decisions are published in serial print publications called “reporters,” and are also published electronically.
Citations are used to refer to opinions and identify where they have been published in reporters.
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 of the reporter, (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 Stearns v. Ticketmaster Corp., 655 F.3d 1013 (9th Cir. 2011), identifies a decision in a case between an appellant named Stearns and an appellee, Ticketmaster Corp. The citation indicates the decision was published in volume 655 of the Federal Reporter, Third Series (identified by the abbreviation “F.3d”), beginning on page 1013. The citation also shows the opinion was issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (abbreviated as 9th Cir.), in 2011.
The rules governing the most widely used legal citation format are found in The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation (19th ed. 2010)(Call No. KF245 .B58). A useful online introduction to legal citation format, with examples and illustrations, is Peter W. Martin, Introduction to Basic Legal Citation (2011), http://www.law.cornell.edu/citation/.
Federal Court Decisions
Supreme Court decisions are published in three print reporters: the United States Reports, cited as "U.S." (Call No. KF101 .A212); the Supreme Court Reporter, cited as "S. Ct." (Call No. KF101 .A322); and the United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers’ Edition, cited as "L. Ed." and "L. Ed. 2d” (Call No. KF101 .A313). Some of these are available in the Law Library Reading Room; others are available from the closed stacks.
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 (Call No. KF105 .F432). 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 first and second series of which arecited as “F. Supp.,” and “F. Supp. 2d” (Call No. KF120 .F42).
Federal court decisions may also be accessed via the subscription databases and Internet sites described below.
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 Western Reporter (N.W. & N.W.2d)
North Eastern Reporter(N.E. & N.E.2d)
Pacific Reporter (P., P.2d, & P.3d)
Southern Reporter (So., So.2d, & So.3d)
South Eastern Reporter (S.E. & S.E.2d)
South Western Reporter (S.W., S.W.2d, & S.W.3d)
A map showing the states as they are placed in the various regional reporters is available in the front of the reporter volumes, and at http://lawschool.westlaw.com/userguides/nationalreporter/west_map_reg_v5.html.
Some state reporters are shelved in the Law Library Reading Room. The regional reporters and other state reporters are available from the closed stacks.
State court opinions may be accessed electronically using the databases and websites listed below.
Digests are often helpful for locating opinions relevant to a particular topic. Digests contain brief excerpts of case facts or court opinions and are classified by subject. Federal, state, and some regional and topical digests are available.
The digests arrange topics alphabetically in multivolume 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, known as its Key Number System. 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 volumes) or separate interim pamphlets are used to update the digests.
Some individual state digests are located in the Law Library Reading Room. West’s Federal Practice Digest (second, third, fourth, and fifth series) are in closed stacks, but the Descriptive Word Index volumes are in the Law Library Reading Room. Supreme Court Digest is located in the Reading Room. West’s Decennial Digest and other digests are located in the closed stacks.
Databases and Internet Resources
Court decisions often may be accessed via subscription databases and the Internet.
On-site at the Library of Congress, patrons may access court decisions through LexisNexis Library Express, a subscription database, http://eresources.loc.gov/record=e1000623~S9. In addition, the Law Library of Congress provides public access on-site to a limited version of Westlaw, which includes court decisions indexed using West Publishing’s Key Number System.
The following websites provide free access to court decisions:
- Google Scholar, http://scholar.google.com/ (choose “case law”, select court(s), and search by citation, case name, or keyword)
- Public Library of Law, http://www.plol.org/Pages/Search.aspx (free; registration required)
- Findlaw, http://caselaw.findlaw.com/
- Justia, http://law.justia.com/cases/
- Leagle, http://www.leagle.com/
- Cornell Legal Information Institute (Cornell University Law School):
- Law Library of Congress Guide to Law Online:
- Federal cases: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/guide/federal/usjudic.php
- State cases: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/guide/states.php
The Supreme Court of the United States places recent decisions, as well as bound volumes of the United States Reports back to volume 502 (October 1991 term), on its website, http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/opinions.aspx.
Links to the websites of Federal courts, some of which include court decisions, may be found on the website of the Administrative Office of the US Courts, http://www.uscourts.gov/court_locator.aspx.
For free caselaw (and statutes) on your mobile device, Fastcase offers a free app with registration, http://www.fastcase.com/iphone/.
For further assistance consult a reference librarian at the Law Library Reading Room Reference Desk by calling (202) 707-5080 or by using Ask a Librarian.
Last Updated: 06/09/2015