Finding Case Law
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Table of Contents
As courts decide the outcome of specific cases, they write and publish their decisions, which are called opinions or cases. These opinions are printed in volumes called reporters or reports. The names of the parties involved, volume number, name of the reporter, number of the first page of the case, and the year when the case was decided is called the case citation or cite. For example, First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978) tells you that this case can be found in volume 435 in the reporter entitled United States Reports, beginning on page 765, and it was decided during 1978.
Reporters print cases in the order they are received from the courts, making access difficult if you do not have the citation to the case. This handout explains how you can locate the citation to a case by subject or by the name of the parties involved. For a video showing how to research cases using print sources, see the University of Denver Sturm College of Law Library website.
If you want to locate cases on a particular subject, use a digest. Digests are arranged alphabetically by broad subject areas which are further subdivided into more specific areas. Within the more specific subject areas, you will find citations to cases.
If you do not know which broad subject area contains citations to relevant cases, use the detailed subject index provided with most digests called the Descriptive-Word Index. These subject indexes help to determine the most relevant broad subject and subdivision of that subject under which to look for relevant cases. Each digest also contains a Table of Cases which is arranged alphabetically by the first party's name.
The digest contains the citation to and a short summary of the case, not the case itself. When you find a reference to a case that you think is relevant, write down the citation for that case and go to the appropriate reporter to find the opinion.
West Publishing produces many of the legal digests you will find in a law library. West has created a subject arrangement that is used in their digests. The large subject area is called a topic and each subsection of the topic is assigned a key number. Therefore, a reference to "Torts, key number 100" refers to subsection 100 under the topic "Torts". Each digest has its own subject index, the Descriptive-Word Index, and its own Table of Cases.
A. Choosing the Correct Digest.
B. Updating A Digest.
Always update every source you use. Most digests are updated by a paper pamphlet, also called a pocket part, which is inserted into the back of the volume of the digest you are using or a separate paper pamphlet which should be shelved next to the volume it updates. Another method used to update a digest is to create a new set for later cases, usually called a second series, third series, etc.
Another source for locating cases on a subject is American Law Reports (Rep KF132.A4). In this set, experts in the law have written articles, called annotations, on various legal subjects. Within these annotations are citations to cases that are relevant to the subject of the annotation.
To find an annotation on a subject, use the index to the set, Index to Annotations (Rep KF132.A475x), which is shelved with the American Law Reports.
Federal, regional, and Minnesota case reporters are located on the first floor (Plaza level, section E) of the library. Case reporters for other states are located on the third floor of the library, KFA-KFZ (sections E and F).
If you have a question about reporter abbreviations found in case citations, consult a reference librarian or D. Bieber, Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations Used In American Law Books (6th ed., 2009) (Reference Office).
Be aware that coverage of court decisions (other than U.S. Supreme Court decisions) may be very limited in scope and in some cases not available via the Internet, this is especially true for older cases (1995 and earlier).
Other options for free case law access include:
LexisOne. Free search of the last ten years of state & federal appellate court opinions, and U.S. Supreme Court opinions from 1781 to present. www.lexisone.com/lx1/caselaw/freecaselaw [you must register to see your search results]
FindLaw. FindLaw's case law library includes full-text opinions published on the site as well as links to sources of court opinions (usually court webs sites). Federal court coverage includes: U.S. Supreme Court opinions (1893 - ), U.S. Circuit Court opinions (most starting around 1995- ); U.S. District courts (primarily links to court web sites); specialized courts, e.g. U.S. Court of Federal Claims, U.S. Bankruptcy courts, etc..., coverage varies (some full-text opinions available, some only links to court web sites). State appellate court coverage varies by state (links to court web sites provided for all states, full-text opinions available for some jurisdictions, e.g. CA, NY, FL).
Public Library of Law. Free search of all Supreme Court opinions, all federal circuit opinions since 1950, and all state appellate opinions since 1997. No federal district court opinions. www.plol.org/Pages/Search.aspx
For other options, see Robert J. Ambrogi, Get Your Free Case Law on the Web, Law Technology News, May 8, 2009, www.law.com/jsp/legaltechnology/pubArticleLT.jsp?id=1202430532688
Full text court decisions are electronically available on LexisNexis Academic .* Coverage varies by jurisdiction.
*Campus-wide access (U of M-TC) for all users. Public access from campus libraries. Remote (off-campus) access available for U of M-TC affiliated users)