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1L Survival Guide: Case Law

Basic Law Library Survival Information

How to Read a Case Citation

Cases are cited to the reporters where they can be found.

Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

  • Case name = Miranda v. Arizona
  • Volume = 384
  • Reporter = United States Reports
  • Page = 436
  • Year Decided = 1966

This case can be found in volume 384 of United States Reports and begins on page 436.

Reporter abbreviations can be found in Table 1 of The Bluebook.

Published v. Unpublished Opinions

The word "published" doesn't have the same meaning in law as it does elsewhere.  Just because a case is printed in a book and distributed doesn't mean it is "published."  In law, cases whose status is "published" or "unpublished" has a bearing on their authority - whether mandatory (binding) or persuasive (non-binding).

Published opinions have precedential value. A case coming from a higher court can become binding (mandatory authority) on all of the lower courts within its system when the facts and legal issues are similar.  Opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court are binding on all of the federal courts below it.

Unpublished opinions are persuasive at best.

Federal Cases

U.S. Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court is the court of last resort for all federal matters.  The Supreme Court term begins on the first Monday in October and continues until June or July of the following year.

Opinions by the United States Supreme Court are officially reported in United States Reports (U.S.) (1875 - ).  They are unofficially reported in the following reporters:

  • Supreme Court Reporter (S. Ct.) 1882 -
  • United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers' Edition (L. Ed., L. Ed. 2d) 1790 -
  • United States Law Week (U.S.L.W.) 1933 -

NOTE:  the distinction between official v. unofficial reporters does not mean that cases in unofficial reporters are somehow not as good or even the same.  Unofficial reporters duplicate the opinion of the Court found in the official reporter.  In addition, they often include editorial enhancements as an aid to the reader in understanding the case.

U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal

Twelve regional circuits hear appeals from District Courts in their region.  This link to a map shows the circuits and the regions they serve.  There is also a Federal Circuit Court, but its jurisdiction is defined by subject rather than geography. 

Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals publish their opinions in the Federal Reporter (F., F.2d, F.3d) (1891 - ).  Unpublished opinions coming from these courts are found in the Federal Appendix (F. App'x) (2001 - ).

U.S. District Courts (Trial Level)

Federal District Courts are the trial level courts for their districts.  Some states have more than one District Court while others, like Hawaii, have only one, the District of Hawaii.  Some District Court opinions are reported in the Federal Supplement (F. Supp., F. Supp. 2d) (1932 - ).

State Cases

Regional Reporters

State appellate cases are reported in regional reporters published by West.  This link to a map shows the geographic area covered by each reporter.  Some states publish their own reporters.  When they do the official reporter is the one published by the state and the unoffical reporter is the regional reporter.

Table 1.3 in The Bluebook lists official and unofficial case reporters for every jurisdiction.

Chronological v. Topical

Reporters are chronological arrangements of cases from particular courts.

Digests offer a topical index to cases from several courts or jurisdictions.

Update & Validate

All primary authority has to be updated and validated.  Cases are primary authority.

Let me repeat that.  All primary authority has to be updated and validated.

Updating

Literally, it means to bring something up-to-date.  Not all laws change daily, but many do.  You will learn how to update various types of laws in your Legal Research classes.

Validating

Only laws currently in force apply to any given legal situation.  So, you have to check to make sure the law hasn't changed between the time you found it and now.  Two validation tools help:  KeyCite (Westlaw) and Shepard's (LexisNexis).

Circuit Court Map v. Regional Reporters Map

Two maps are linked on this page; one refers to the location of courts while the other refers to books.

  1. The Federal Circuit Court map is a map of the geographic boundaries of the Federal Courts of Appeals.
  2. Regional Reporters are books where you can find cases from state jurisdictions according to the region where the state is located.