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United States Legal Research for L.L.M. Students

Overview of basic United States legal research. Originally written primarily for foreign law students, who are familiar with legal concepts but unfamiliar with U.S. legal materials, but useful also for the novice practitioner.

U.S. Court System

Structure of a Case

These two opinions are examples of published Federal court opinions. The Newdow case is an example of a United States Court of Appeals case published in West's Federal Reporter. The Elk Grove case is an example of a Supreme Court case in West's Supreme Court Reporter. The elements of a published case are as follows:  

  • Caption: the name of the case
  • Docket Number: the number of the case file in the Court Clerk's office
  • Headnote: short statements, at the top of the case, before the opinion itself, of issues of law decided in the case, written by editors (not the court)
  • Syllabus: summary of the facts and issues of law and holding.  In official reporters, written by persons designated by the court; in unofficial reporters, written by the editors
  • Majority/concurring/dissenting opinion
    • Always in this order
    • Majority opinion is the holding
    • Concurring opinion: joins in the result but for different reasons than the majority
    • Dissent: disagrees with the result

Structure of Case Reporters

  • Contain decisions of (primarily) appellate courts (state trial court opinions are rarely published; federal court trial opinions are selectively published)
  • Published chronologically, often in multiple series (e.g. F., F.2d, F.3d)
  • Usually cover a specific court or the courts of a specific jurisdiction
  • One case may be published in more than one case reporter, resulting in parallel citations.  Example: Qwest Corp. v. MetroNet Servs. Corp., 540 U.S. 1147, 124 S. Ct. 1144, 157 L. Ed. 2d 1040 (2004) was published in three places:
    • United States Reports, Vol. 540, page 1147 (540 U.S. 1147)
    • West's Supreme Court Reporter, Vol. 124, page 1144 (124 S. Ct. 1144)
    • U. S. Supreme Court Reports, Lawyer's Edition, 2d Series (157 L. Ed. 2d 1040)
    • the year the case was decided is in parentheses at the end of the parallel citations: (2004).  If the case reporter covers more than one court, e.g. the Federal Reporter publishes opinions from all U.S. Courts of Appeal, the court will be listed as well: (9th Cir. 2003)
  • Star paging: used in online databases in html to give the print page numbers for quotation and pin cite purposes
  • Slip opinions: first print publication of a Supreme Court case (thin paper pamphlet)
  • Advance sheets: pamphlets that update case reporter sets prior to publication of the next bound volume
  • Official and unofficial reporters: some case reporters are designated by the court to be the official source for opinions of that court.  Other case reporters, published by editors not do designated, are deemed unofficial.  "Unofficial" case reporters will often have editorial enhancements that make them the researcher's tool of choice even though they are not designated as "official" for citation purposes.   

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