Court Opinions -The End Result of a Lawsuit and Its Docketed Record

Court opinions or legal opinions are the primary source of decisional (case) law. They represent the end result of a very complex process. If we visualize the court as “the place wherein justice is judicially administered” (EHRLICH’S BLACKSTONE, at 465 (1959)), then a court opinion can be described as the final expression of the administered justice.

Justice is administered through a well-defined procedure which is mirrored in court documents. Those court documents are part of the case docket. Because they are filed with the courts, they are open to the public, unless the judge in charge decides otherwise. The docket can be accessed through the court clerk’s office. To the extent that the filings are done through electronic submission, those documents can be accessed electronically, through different databases, including Pacer (restricted to federal courts),, Westlaw and Lexis.

Repositories of Case Dockets

Sometimes researchers need to see the official summary of proceedings taking place in a specific case in a specific court of law. Today, that summary is available from automated docket systems, which represent case tracking systems. Those systems contain information about cases, which can be either pending or decided.

Each case can be identified, inter alia, by its docket number, and the corresponding docket sheet. Each docket sheet further identifies the numerous documents recording each phase of the trial.

The docket sheet and those specific documents can be located from a variety of sources. For example, each courthouse will provide access to the dockets of its current cases, the so-called open cases on line, from their website. Perhaps understandably, the U.S. Supreme Court web site has the best digital docket information.

In addition to individual court house, there are various digital services. For example,Legal Dockets Online will provide access to all freely available dockets, from state and federal cases. If you know the docket number of any case heard at a specific court house, you can get that docket sheet as well, by personally contacting that court’s clerk and then archives.

As a result of the E-Government Act of 2002PACER was created, and with it, free access to finding federal docket sheets of cases whose party name and court house you know. PACER is the acronym for Public Access to Court Electronic Records — an electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information from federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts. While the location of the documents is free-of charge, accessing each document through printing or downloading is not free.

Public.Resource.Org is another digital option for docket information. Their work is incremental, and recently they scanned all the 9th Circuit briefs up until about 1970(information provided by Carl Malamud in January 2012)

BloombergLaw, Westlaw and Lexis all offer docket information which is at times more comprehensive than PACER’s because all three companies offer messenger services which, upon request and for a high fee, can copy any docket-mentioned document upon request. In addition to federal dockets, Bloomberg Law’s docket library also covers state dockets.

Case law

Federal and state case law is available from a variety of print and digital repositories, which are both proprietary and free of charge.

In print, federal case law can be located by using the West reporters. At the trial court level, the set of West reporters which cover some of the cases coming from the U.S. district courts is called The Federal Supplement, and it is abbreviated F.Supp. At the circuit court level, the set of West reporters which cover all appellate cases is calledThe Federal Reporter, and it is abbreviated, F.

Currently, cases from the U.S. Supreme Court are covered in three reporters: an official reporter, which is called The United States Reports, and it is abbreviated, U.S., and two commercial reporters, one published by West, The Supreme Court Reporter(S.Ct.), and one published by Lexis, The Lawyer’s Edition (L.Ed.). Historically, the print repositories of cases were identified by the name of the person who copied down the decision, the court’s reporter. For example, the first U.S. Supreme Court reporters were called Cranch, Dallas, or Peters etc., after the name of the person who reported the decisions. For instance, Richard Peters reported all decisions contained in volume 7 Peters, or 32 U.S.

The most popular free-of-charge digital repository is Google Scholar, whose opinions are drawn from a series of sources, including Cornell’s LIIPublic.Resource.Org and Justia(see,‐scholar‐posts‐cases‐.html), and a company whose name Google Scholar employees refuse to name, but most likely is the now defunct, AltLaw.

Google Scholar started including case law in 2009 — see,, although Google Scholar remains cryptic about its source of case law (hear 2009 conversation with Google Scholar on this topic

Reassuringly, Google Scholar also uses official sources, as Gail Warren of the Virginia State Law Library, recently recalled that the Virginia State court administrator’s office prepared CD-ROMS for Google Scholar which included the cases corresponding to Virginia Reports, volume 141 through volume 219.

In addition to the repositories mentioned above, each court house will publish its most recent cases on line, in a manner hard to use unless you know the date, or the party name, or the docket number. The U.S. Supreme Court’s site remains an example of digital case law archive, though not of digital ease-of-access.

The three mega aggregates: Westlaw, Lexis and Bloomberg, remain the most popular repositories with those who can afford them, while alternative digital repositories, such as FastCase, Versuslaw, etc, mostly provided by state bar associations continue to be used by practitioners as well.