Researching Case Law

Finding the binding authority can be a daunting task, and that is why you may want to find it in many ways, so by coming across the same case over and over you can validate your finding.

Often researchers find the seminal relevant case from secondary sources. Many times they find it by going to the case law repositories and use their research skills.


Case law repositories


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 called The 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,http://commonscold.typepad.com/commonscold/2009/11/google‐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,http://thelifeofbooks.blogspot.com/2009/11/google-scholar-loj-where-did-google-get.html, although Google Scholar remains cryptic about its source of case law (hear 2009 conversation with Google Scholar on this topic http://goo.gl/V5Klf)

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 courthouse 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.


Practice Exercises – Repositories of Case law

– How to locate a case by its citation
– How to locate a case by the names of the parties
– How to search /use digital databases