Skip to main content

Legal Research: Case Law

This guide will describe the basics of doing legal research at the URI Libraries.

Case Law Basics

Our country is governed by the Anglo-American tradition of law which views the law as a constantly evolving body of doctrine subject not only to amendments through a legislative body, known as statutory law, but also through interpretation by the courts, which is known as case law.  The courts express their interpretation by deciding on cases brought before them and publishing their decisions as judicial opinions.  The opinions are based on the decisions of prior cases. Once an opinion is published, it in turn becomes part of the body of case law.

In order to reasearch case law successfully it's necessary to have a basic understanding of the court system.  The court system follows a hierarchy.  A lower court will actually conduct the trial and if either party is unsatisfied with the verdict, they can appeal to a higher court which is known as a "court of appeal". It is the court of appeal which has the authority to write an opinion.  The case is argued by attorneys for both parties in front of a panel of judges.  There are no juries.  If the case offers a unique interpretation or sets a new precedent, an opinion will be written. If an appeal does not satisfy either party, it can be appealed to an even higher court of appeal and an opinion may or may not be written at this level as well. 

The boxes below explain how to find and use case law.  They are:

Researching Case Law

When researching case law, there are several points to keep in mind:

  • Only a small number of the cases brought before a court of appeals are heard and an even smaller number will have opinions written and published.  Information on many cases may exist only in the court transcripts.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal.  If the Supreme Court decides on a case, that ruling stands and can't be appealed any further.  Because of the far reaching and final nature of their cases, Supreme Court cases are widely published, studied and cited.
  • In most legal publications all the sources where an opinion is published will be cited.  There will also be a list to all the citations of all the lower courts which heard this case as well.  This extensive citing makes it easy to trace a case and to find a copy of the opinions.
  • At any level of the appeals process a court can refuse to hear a case.  This will be indicated in a citation by the abbreviation "cert. den." (which stands for certiorari denied).  This indicates that the upper court will not hear the case and that the ruling of the lower court stands.

Court Reporters

Court opinions are published in print format in what are known as court reporters.   The opinions are published in chronological order in numbered volumes.  Some court reporters are produced by the court itself but others are published by private publishers.  The privately published reporters will have additional features to aid in research.  These features are discussed in the "Anatomy of an Opinion" boxes below.

There is a reporter for the highest court of each state which may or may not be produced by the court.  Rhode Island for example did produce its own reporter, Rhode Island Reports until 1981 when it was turned over to West Publishing.

There are also regional reporters that cover multiple states.  Rhode Island is included in the Atlantic Reporter which also covers 10 other states in the Northeast.

The federal reporters include Federal Reporter which covers the Federal Courts of Appeals and Federal Supplement which covers most of the other federal courts except for the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is covered by several reporters.  United States Reports is published by the Supreme Court itself.  Supreme Court Reporter is published by West Publishing, and United States Supreme Court Reports (Lawyers Edition) is published by Lexis Nexis Publishing.  The Library owns United States Reports and Supreme Court Reporter but not United States Supreme Court Reports (Lawyers Edition).

NOTE: Because often only the print version of a legal source is recognized as the official version, when doing a search, you will find the citations to these print court reporters, even in online resources.  Therefore it's important to know what is being cited when you come across these citations and also to understand the need to cite these sources in your own writing.

 

Listed below in court order are some connomly used reporters along with their citation abbreviation. (For more information on citing legal sources, see the "Legal Citation" section of this guide.)

Anatomy of an Opinion

Once you have found an opinion appropriate for your research, keep in mind that the text includes more than just the opinion itself.  The boxes below describe and point out the more important elements and what they indicate.

Citations

The citation to the opinion will  include all legal sources which have published it. 

Case Citations

Overview/Syllabus/Synopsis

There will be a summary of the opinion.  If there is more than one given, the last one listed will be the one written by the court.  The others will be added by the publisher, such as the Lexis-Nexis one in the example below.

 

Overview

 

Court Syllabus

 

Head Notes

Head notes are summaries of the points of law that are addressed by the opinion.  This allows you to home in on only those points that are of interest to you and it also offers a means for finding other cases covering the same points of law.  Headnotes are only added by the private publishers and each publisher has its own system so there may be several sets of headnotes listed.  In the example below, the Lexis Nexis headnotes are illustrated.

 

Headnotes

Text of Opinion

The opinion itself is only that text given below the word "opinion" or below the name of the justice writing the opinion.  If you need to cite from the opinion, make sure that what you're citing was written below this.

When quoting an opinion, it's important to cite the print version so the online publishers will insert the page numbers of the print resources in the appropriate places in the text.  The page numbers are preceded by asterisks and the number of asterisks correspond to the placement of the source in the citation at the top of the document.  In this example, the page number with one asterisk before it corresponds to the first source cited which is United States Reports (abbreviated by U.S.).

 

Opinion and page numbers

Treatment of References

Opinions cite other references extensively.  In the print versions, they are given as traditional footnotes.  In the online version, the footnotes are interspersed throughout the text.  They are set in a different font and are indented but care must be taken to make sure that you don't mistake a footnote for the text of the opinion.

References to the headnotes will also appear in appropriate places in the text.  They are not part of the original text but are added by the publisher.

 

References in text

My Profile

Deborah Mongeau's picture
Deborah Mongeau
Contact:
University Libraries

Public Services Department

phone: (401) 874-4610

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.