Introduction to Case Law Research: Searching for the Binding Opinions 

Case law research represents the bulk of any legal research assignment in any common law system. Case law research is an indispensable component of both statutory and administrative law research.
In the following sections you will learn both about cases and case law, and about how you can excel in locating the legal opinion of your interest.

But perhaps the most important lesson of this wiki chapter is understanding how limited free-of-charge digital legal research remains, despite all technological advances of the last few years.

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.


As mentioned above, ontologically, court opinions define the end of a complex procedural process, the lawsuit. Opinions do not require the human and financial cost the passing of any statute requires, because they usually represent an individual endeavor, rather than a collective undertaking. However, from the perspective of the individuals or corporations involved in the lawsuit—the “parties to the lawsuit”—opinions are very hard to reach. Often, the best interest of both parties demands a private settlement.


To understand how opinions come into existence, next I will briefly explain their enabling process. First, you should view lawsuits as human activities, and like the majority of our daily activities, they too are governed by legal norms. Unlike the legal norms which grant individuals and corporations rights and duties and disclose the circumstances in which a court may be expected “to grant redress to one person against another,” the norms governing lawsuits have a different content.


The norms which spell out our rights and duties are considered rules of substance and make the body of substantive law. However, those norms are sufficient to enable the enjoyment of our present state of social, political, and economic freedom. The other necessary half represents those which govern the process of enforcing the first set of norms, when and if they are violated. Usually, the enforcing norms are identified as procedural in their nature.


For example, the norm which states that A has the right to lawful employment, and the norm which states that if A is denied such employment, A is entitled to a judgment of a court to recover money damages from B are both substantive legal norms. They inform A of her rights, and B of his duties. However, they do not inform A of how to obtain a judgment if B violates her rights. Other norms will explain A what she needs to do in order to recover the money damages from B. Such procedural rules make the body of civil procedure, or civil litigation. In other words, procedural law prescribes “the procedures by which persons may bring disputes before courts” and by which they unfold.


The next sections will briefly continue the story of how a legal opinion “is born,” taking you through the stages of civil litigation.