Case Law


A CASE is a written decisions issued by a court, often referred to as a judicial opinion or decision.  Cases are published in chronological order in print sets called reporters or case reports.

Federal courts and state courts use a similar hierarchical organization (lowest to highest): trial court, appellate court, highest court. Courts at each level publish their decisions in chronological order in official case reporters.

There are two different categories of reporters which you need to know:               1. official reporters – which are usually published by a governmental entity       2. unofficial reporters – which are published commercially (usually by                       either Westlaw or LexisNexis).

Cases can be found three ways:                                                                                                    1. Citation:A standard three-part citation lets you know where to find the case:

Volume Number Reporter Page Number
238 F.3d 68

In the above example the notation “3d” indicates that the Federal Reporter (F)     is now in its third series. Be sure to note which numbered series your citation         points to. WestlawLexis and other online legal databases allow you to pull       up cases by simply entering the citation in a search box.

2. Name:                                                                                                             a)You can find cases and their citations using print                                                               resources by using the Case Name volumes at the end of a                                             West digest set. Some digests have volumes listing cases by                                           Plaintiffs or Defendants or both.

b)You can find a case using party names on both Lexis and                                                Westlaw and most online case law databases as well by                                                        entering the litigants’ names in the “find by name search” box.                                                                                                                  

3. Topic:                                                                                                             Cases are published in the order decided by the court – i.e. in                                         chronological order. A reporter will have cases by different judges on a                   wide variety of topics.  To find cases on a certain topic, there is a case                         finding tool called a case digest.

Every reporter published by West uses the West Digest system, which                       assigns every legal issue in a case to one of 400+ legal topics and further                   pigeon holes the issue into a subdivisions called key numbers. The topic,                   key number, and a short blurb about the legal issue (referred to                                   as headnotes) and appear as editorial enhancements at the beginning of                   each case in a West Reporter. By looking up your topic and key number in               the digest for your jurisdiction, you will find a list of citations to cases                       covering the same point.

Resource: Cornell Law Library

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