Skip to Main Content

California Legal Research

An overview of resources for researching California law.

Quick Links

California Court System

Like most court systems, California courts are organized into three tiers:

  1. The California Supreme Court is the state's highest court. Its decisions are binding on all other California courts.
  2. The Courts of Appeal are the courts of intermediate appellate review. The courts are divided into six geographic districts, and some districts are further divided into divisions.

    map california appellate districts
  3. Superior Courts are the trial courts. There are 58 superior courts, one in each county.

For more information about the California court system, visit the court website.

Court Rules

Official California court rules are no longer published in print. Current rules can be found on the court website:

Unofficial, annotated versions of the court rules are available in Westlaw and Lexis.


Finding cases online

Finding cases by topic

Use the Westlaw Key Numbers to find cases by topic:

Westlaw - Key Numbers screenshot

  1. Click on Key Numbers
  2. Set the jurisdiction filter to California.
  3. Browse or search for relevant topics.
  4. Click on a specific topic, such as Key Number 326 (Environmental Law > Noise Pollution > Railways), for a list of all cases on that topic.

Digests are books that organize cases by topic. You can likely find them in your law firm or court library, or a local public law library. For more information about using digests to find California cases by topic, see this guide:

Unpublished & Depublished Opinions

In general, only published opinions from the California Courts of Appeal can be cited as authority. Other types of opinions you may come across include:

Unpublished: Opinions the court chose not to publish. Unpublished opinions are available in Westlaw, Lexis, and on the court's website, even though they should not be cited as authority. 

Partial publication: The court may certify only part of an opinion for publication. Unpublished portions should not be cited as authority.  

Superseded: When the California Supreme Court grants review, the appellate court opinion is automatically superseded and no longer considered published. After granting review, the supreme court may order publication of the appellate court opinion in whole or in part.

Depublished: The California Supreme Court can decide to depublish an appellate court opinion at any time. 

Limited exceptions to the rule against citing unpublished or depublished opinions are set forth in Rule 8.1115, in the California Rules of Court.

For more information about the publication of and citation to appellate opinions, see Rules 8.1100 - 8.1125 in the California Rules of Court.

Official & Unofficial Reporters

Judicial opinions are published in books called reporters. Official reporters are authorized by the government, and contain the official version of the opinion. Unofficial reporters are published by private publishers, and often contain the opinion plus annotations or other research aids.

You probably won't need to find or look up cases in print reporters. Case citations are based on these print reporters, however, so understanding the differences can be useful for interpreting citations. Citation rules usually specify which reporter you should cite to. 

Official Reporters

California Reports 
Opinions from the California Supreme Court, from 1850 - present.
Bluebook abbreviations: Cal., Cal. 2d, Cal. 3d, Cal. 4th.
Sample citation: People v. Harris, 57 Cal. 4th 804 (2013).

California Appellate Reports
Opinions from the California Courts of Appeal and Appellate Department of the Superior Courts, from 1905 - present.
Bluebook abbreviations: Cal. App., Cal. App. 2d, Cal. App. 3d, Cal. App. 4th.
Sample citation: McMullen v. Superior Court, 6 Cal. App. 3d 224 (1970).

Unofficial Reporters

West's Pacific Reporter
Regional reporter of annotated opinions from courts in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, from 1883 - present.
Bluebook abbreviations: P., P.2d, P.3d
Sample citation: People v. Harris, 306 P.3d 1195 (Cal. 2013).

West's California Reporter
Annotated opinions from the California Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals, from 1959 - present.
Bluebook abbreviations: Cap. Rptr., Cal. Rptr. 2d, Cal. Rptr. 3d.
Sample citation: People v. Harris, 161 Cal. Rptr. 3d 364 (2013).

Ask a Law Librarian

Profile Photo
D'Angelo Law Librarians
1121 E. 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637