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United States Legal Research Guide: Case Law

Court Hierarchy and Structure

For general information about the tiered U.S. federal court system, see the United States Courts - Court Role and Structure.

Image Source: United States Courts

For a map of U.S. federal circuit courts, a list of all the federal courts and links to their websites, see the Court Website Links.

For the structure of state courts, see State Court Structure Charts.

Find the Authorised/Official Version of a Case

To find the names of official/authorised version of a US case, look at Australian Guide to Legal Citation Rule 24.1.3.

Interpret Case Citations

To decipher an abbreviation in a case citation, use Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations.  You can also look at the Law Report Abbreviations found in the Appendix of the Australian Guide to Legal Citation.  The following print resources are also available in the Law Library:

Subsequent Consideration of a Case

To check how subsequent cases have interpreted, applied or rejected legal issues in a case (noting up), you will need to use a case citator.  Subscription databases offer the best case citators.  Westlaw's KeyCite and Lexis' Shepards citators help you to determine if your case is still good law by providing references to subsequent cases have interpreted and may have superseded your case.  These citators also provide references to commentary/secondary sources that have cited your case.

Note the citator symbol assigned to your case (e.g. a red flag on Westlaw's KeyCite means that your case is "no longer good for at least one point of law”; and in Lexis, a red stop sign means “subsequent appellate history contains negative analysis.”).  Make sure you understand the meaning of the citator symbols and that you read the relevant later citing sources to determine how they apply to your legal research. Shepards and KeyCite results for the same case may vary, so it is always good idea to check both.

For Australian and other foreign consideration of U.S. cases, use:

Unreported Judgments

Decisions that are not designated by the courts for publication in print reporters are known as unpublished decisions and are non-precedential. Unreported judgments are often available via court web sites and online research services including Lexis and Westlaw.

Tip: Because unreported cases have non-precedential value in the U.S., try to find the best reported cases from the highest court rather than relying on unreported judgments.

American Law Reports

American Law Reports (ALR) is a multi-series publication comprised of articles that focus on unsettled areas of the law (often a split between federal circuits or state courts).  Each article discusses the issue in detail and provides extensive footnotes to leading judicial opinions.

Supreme Court Cases

You can find U.S. Supreme Court decisions from the following resources.  The authorised law reporter for the Supreme Court is the United States Reports ('US' series), e.g. Bush v Gore, 531 US 98 (2000). 

Federal Appellate and District Court Cases

You can find federal appellate court and district court (court of first instance) decisions from the following resources.  The authorised reports for federal United States Courts of Appeal are published in the 'F' series ('F', 'F 2d', 'F 3d', etc).  Authorised reports fof the federal United States District Courts (federal courts of first instance) are published in the 'F Supp' series ('F Supp', 'F Supp 2d', etc). 

State Law Cases

The Court Statistics Project provides a interacitve map of state court structures.  Just click on a particular state to learn more about the court structure and names of the courts in that state.

All decisions of each state's court of last resort, usually known as the Supreme Court, are published.  Some states publish all state intermediate appellate court opinions and others publish only selected opinions.  State trial court decisions are usually not published.

Cases from all fifty U.S. states can be found on LexisNexis and Westlaw.  Begin by searching the database covering both state and federal cases for a selected state.  This research strategy finds both state law cases and federal cases that have interpreted that particluar state's laws.

Free Databases of U.S. Law Cases

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