Finding cases by citation 

The steps to find cases identified by their citation are the following:

1. First, make sure that you have a correct, or at least a proper citation.

Use the Bluebook, now in its 19th edition, to identify all available case law repositories. It lists abbreviations for the reporters which cover the United States Supreme Court cases, federal cases, and state cases from each state court. Some of those abbreviations are listed here, too.

All case law citations contain at least four elements:

(i) a number which indicates the volume of the case reporter, and which precedes the abbreviation of the reporter,
(ii) the abbreviation of the reporter,
(iii) the number of the page where the opinion starts and which follows the abbreviation and
(iv) a parenthetical.

Sometimes the parenthetical will contain only the year when the case what decided.

Other times, as in the example of the state court decision in Lawrence v. State, 41 S.W.3d 349 (Tex. App. 2001) – see here – the parenthetical contains additional information regarding the court that issued the decision, which will help you see whether that decision is helpful from a precedential point of view.

As another example of a parenthetical which contains more information than the year of the decision, think about federal appellate cases reported in the Federal Reporter 3rd Series (F.3d). F3d collects court cases from all federal courts of appeal. In order to know what court issued what case, the citation’s parenthetical will contain information identifying the court. The proper citation for United States v. Aguilar, is 295 F.3d 1018 (9th Cir. 2002).

The parenthetical identifies both the court and the year. Based on that information, the reader of Aguilar understands even before skimming the opinion, that Aguilar is a precedent in the Ninth Circuit Court system, which geographically includes the district courts located in California. A quick view of the geographical location of the circuit court is available at http://www.uscourts.gov/Court_Locator.aspx.

2. Second, once you have a proper citation, choose the case law repository to which you have access. If your citation refers to a United States Supreme Court case, your task is fairly easy. As mentioned many times in this book, there are many electronic places where you could find your case. Those free-of-charge repositories have different search engines. For example, if you want to read Kelo v. New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005), you may use either print or digital reporters. Among the free-of-charge digital repositories, the best are Cornell’sOyezGoogle Scholar and FindLaw.

3. Third, once you have settled on what repository you want to use, follow the search steps that specific repository asks:

  • locate its search box,
  • choose the search by citation option, and finally
  • type your citation in the search box.