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Finding Case Law

Sources and strategies for finding case law about a topic.

Anatomy of a Citation Published in a Reporter

Searching for a direct citation is usually much more cost effective (and accurate) than using "natural language" searching (as you typically would use with Internet search engines). See the graphic below for the parts of a case citation as cited in volume-reporter format. Please note that some states are moving to a universal citation format; please see the Universal Citation box for more information.

Supreme Court case citation example with labeled components

  1. Parties in the case. The plaintiff (or appellant, or petitioner, depending on which court the case was heard in) appears first, followed by “versus,” abbreviated to simply “v.” and the name of the defendant (or appellee, or responder). The names of the parties are also typically abbreviated, such as “Auth.” for “Authority” in this example. See table T6 of The Bluebook for a table of abbreviations.
  2. Volume number of the official reporter that the case appears in.
  3. Abbreviation of the name of the reporter in which the published case appears. See table T1 of The Bluebook for a list of reporters and their abbreviations.
  4. The first page in the reporter on which the case appears.
  5. The volume, reporter, and first page number of the parallel citation. A parallel citation is the same case as it appears in a different reporter. Historically, parallel citations were typically provided as a courtesy so that the reader can find the citation based on reporters available for him or her to use. However, this was more common when users relied heavily on print reporters. Now that many users consult electronic reporters, whose search functions can find cases from a variety of reporter citations, this practice is diminishing. However, the inclusion of parallel citations can vary based on the court. Check the court’s local rules for citation requirements.
  6. The year that the case was decided (not the date that the case was initiated). This parenthetical also often includes the abbreviation of the name of the court, which appears before the date.

Public Domain Citation Format

In addition to the print reporter citation format, several state courts are moving to a public domain citation format for case law. This format is also referred to as vendor-neutral or universal citation. In this format, the courts themselves assign a decision number to the case rather than using the volume and page numbers of print reporters. 

Public domain format has not yet been adopted by the federal courts, but several state courts require its use. Illinois, for example, requires public domain format for Supreme Court and Appellate cases decided after June 31, 2011. You can check to see if a state court follows the public domain format by checking your state in Table T1 of The Bluebook. See the graphic below to understand the components of this citation format.

Public Domain citation example with labeled components

  1. Case name.
  2. Year the case was decided.
  3. Court designator. Check a court’s local rules to learn its designator.
  4. Opinion number as assigned by the court.
  5. Paragraph number(s). If you are citing/searching for the whole case, leave this section off.

For more information about the public domain citation format, see these links:

Searching by Citation

To find a case for which you have the citation, simply type in the volume, reporter, and first page of the case (sections 2-4 of the Anatomy of a Citation example). See the image below for an example search in Lexis Advance.

Lexis citation search screenshot

 

Or, if you're using the public domain citation format, type in the year, court designator, and opinion number. Below is an example using Westlaw:

Westlaw citation search example screenshot

In BLAW, type the citation in the main search box. Instead of clicking the search icon or hitting enter, wait to see if the database retrieves your citation. If the citation is valid, you will see an option to click on the citation to go to the case.

BLAW citation search example screenshot

Searching by Name

If you only know the parties of the case, you may search any legal database for a list of possible results. Also see these more efficient methods using Lexis Advance, Westlaw, or BLAW:

Lexis Advance

Use the name segment search tool to search by party names. To search by segment, use this structure: "name (insert party name here) AND name (insert second party here)"

See this example:

Lexis name segment search screenshot

If you simply start typing in party names in the search box without using the name segments, Lexis will also automatically populate case suggestions, but the results are less exact than searching by segment.

Westlaw

Westlaw: Cases link location screenshot

2. Then, choose the Advanced Search.

Westlaw: location of Advanced Search icon screenshot

3. There, type the party names. Use the ampersand (&) connector instead of "v." If there is more than one word in the party name(s), place the names in quotation marks.

Westlaw: searching for party names screenshot

Bloomberg Law

1. On the home page, click on Select Sources within the search bar.

BLAW: selecting sources screenshot

2. Then, click on Advanced Searches and choose the first option, Court Opinions.

BLAW: selecting Court Opinions screenshot

3. Type the party names into the Party field. Use the "AND" operator instead of "v." If there is more than one word in the party name(s), place the name(s) in quotation marks. Click Search.

BLAW: searching for party names screenshot