Case Law Research Guide
This guide details how to read a case citation and sets out the print and online sources for finding cases.
Every law student and practicing attorney must be able to find, read, analyze, and interpret case law. Under the common law principles of stare decisis, a court must follow the decisions in previous cases on the same legal topic. Therefore, finding cases is essential to finding out what the law is on a particular issue. This guide will show you how to read a case citation and will set out the sources, both print and online, for finding cases.
A case citation is a reference to where a case (also called a decision or an opinion ) is printed in a book. The citation can also be used to retrieve cases from Westlaw and Lexis. A case citation consists of a volume number, an abbreviation of the title of the book or other item, and a page number. For example, the citation 265 U.S. 274 can be broken into the following parts:
Volume number: 265
Abbreviation for the book: U.S.
Page number: 274
In this example, U.S. is the abbreviation for United States Reports, one place where Supreme Court opinions are published.
When the same case is printed in different books, citations to more than one book may be given. These additional citations are known as parallel citations.
Example: 265 U.S. 274, 68 L. Ed. 1016, 44 S. Ct. 565.
This means that the case you would find at page 565 of volume 44 of the Supreme Court Reporter (published by West) will be the same case you find on page 1016 of volume 68 of Lawyers' Edition (published by Lexis), and both will be the same as the opinion you find in the official government version, United States Reports. Although the text of the opinion will be identical, the added editorial material will differ with each publisher.
The sets of books which publish cases are called reporters , and each one has a designated abbreviation. Reporters may be grouped into four kinds:
- Federal reporters (report federal cases)
- Regional reporters (report cases from a group of states)
- State reporters (report cases from a specific state)
- Subject reporters (report cases from various jurisdictions which deal a certain area of law, e.g., environment or patents)
Federal, regional, and state reporters are located on the fourth floor.
|Abbreviation||Reporter Name & Contents|
|U.S.||United States Reports
Supreme Court opinions (official)
|L. Ed., L. Ed. 2d||Lawyers' Edition, 1st, 2d series
Supreme Court opinions (Lexis Law Publishing)
|S. Ct.||Supreme Court Reporter
Supreme Court opinions (West Publishing)
|F., F.2d, F.3d||Federal Reporter, 1st, 2d, 3d series
1st: Federal district and appellate court opinions (to 1925)
2nd: Federal appellate court opinions(1925-1993)
3rd: Federal appellate court opinions(1993- )
|F. Supp.,F. Supp. 2d||Federal Supplement, 1st, 2d series
1st: Federal district court opinions(1931-1998)
2d: Federal district court opinions(1998- )
|F. App.||Federal Appendix
Federal appellate court opinions (not reported in F.3d) (2001- )
|Abbreviation||Reporter Name & Contents|
|A., A.2d||Atlantic Reporter, 1st, 2d series
Opinions from CT, DC, DE, ME, MD, NH, NJ, PA, RI, VT
|N.E., N.E.2d||North Eastern Reporter, 1st, 2d series
Opinions from IL, IN, MA, NY, OH
|NW., N.W.2d||North Western Reporter, 1st, 2d series
Opinions from IA, MI, MN, NE, ND, SD, WI
|P., P.2d, P.3d||Pacific Reporter, 1st, 2d, 3d series
Opinions from AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, KS, MT, NV, NM, OK, OR, UT, WA, WY
|S.E., S.E.2d||South Eastern Reporter, 1st, 2d series
Opinions from GA, NC, SC, VA, WV
|S.W., S.W.2d, S.W.3d||South Western Reporter, 1st, 2d, 3d series
Opinions from AR, KY, MO, TN, TX
|S., S.2d||Southern Reporter, 1st, 2d series
Opinions from AL, FL, LA, MS
Generally a state reporter's abbreviation will include the state's abbreviation (i.e., "Va." is the abbreviation for Virginia Reports, "Md. App." stands for Maryland Appellate Reports .) Not all states have their own reporters, in which case you must use the Regional reporters. See the pages 188-241 of the Bluebook for further details, or ask a reference librarian.
LEXIS & WESTLAW
All of the cases published in the reporters are also available in full text on Westlaw, and most are available on Lexis, too. Only some of the older state cases may not be available on Lexis. In addition to the full text of cases, Westlaw has PDF images of all cases published in the federal and regional reporters since 1980. Lexis and Westlaw offer case law searching by citation, jurisdiction, and subject.
There are many Internet sites that offer the full text of court opinions free of charge. These sites are best used to access recent decisions when the case name, title, or date is known. The Internet is not recommended for precedent research because the sites are not comprehensive and subject searching is not as sophisticated as print, Westlaw, or Lexis.
Supreme Court Cases
United States Supreme Court
This official site contains Supreme Court decisions beginning with the 2000 term. It also contains useful information about the Court and its docket.
Findlaw offers a searchable database of Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1893. This database is browsable by year and United States Reports volume number and is searchable by citation, case name, and full text.
Provides the full-text of U.S. Supreme Court cases from 1 U.S. on. To limit your search to only Supreme Court cases, use the advanced search option.
Legal Information Institute
The Cornell University Legal Information Institute offers opinions of the Court issued since May 1990. Earlier opinions are also available; however, there are some gaps in coverage. Search the full text, or browse by topic, author, or party.
Lower Federal Court Cases
Maintained by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, this page includes links to appellate and district court home pages, most of which provide recent opinions.
Provides the full-text of selected district court opinions, U.S. Courts of Appeals opinions (1920s on), and the Supreme Court (1 U.S. on).
State Court Cases
Provides cases from all 50 states (1950-). To limit your search to a specific state, use the advanced search option.
Updated 12/12 (MK)
Links 1/13 (MS)
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