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Legal Research Guide: Case Law

Locating Cases Online

   Using Westlaw

  1. Begin at the Library homepage.
  2. From the library homepage, click on Articles & More
  3. Click All Databases A-Z, click "W" at the top, then scroll to and choose  Westlaw NEXT – this should take you to the database (if you are off campus you will be asked to enter your username & password – this is the same combination you use for Blackboard, SamWeb, etc.)
  4. Click on the Cases tab – upper left side
  5. Westlaw NEXT defaults to federal cases.  Click on federal on the right-hand side to change the jurisdiction.
  6. Click on "Advanced" on the far right-hand side.
  7. Use the Document Fields to enter parties names or citation information.

 

 

 

Differences Between State and Federal Courts

Federal state wordle

The two types of courts in the United States are state courts and federal courts.

How are courts established?

  • State courts: Individual states establish state courts.  Note that there are also local courts (city, county, or municipality).
  • Federal courts: The United States Constitution establishes federal courts which handle matters involving the United States Constitution as well as statutes enacted by Congress.

How do state and federal courts differ?

  • State and federal courts differ primarily in terms of jurisdiction.  Jurisdiction means the types of cases that a court is permitted to hear.
  • State courts: State courts have broad jurisdiction to hear many types of cases particularly those that involve private citizens such as criminal and family matters. One exception to this rule in criminal cases is that state courts are not authorized to hear cases involving violations of federal law.
  • Federal courts: The United States Constitution determines which types of cases Federal courts are authorized to hear. Click link for more information about federal court jurisdiction, Federal courts are also permitted to hear cases involving state law when a violation of the Constitution is alleged.
  • Please note that there are times when both state and federal courts have jurisdiction. This leaves the decision about where to file a case up to the parties involved in the dispute. 
  • Click link for more comparisons between state and federal courts,

 

Librarian

Dianna Kim's picture
Dianna Kim
Contact:
936-294-3687
dlk011@shsu.edu

Introduction to Case Law

 

Case law consists of the written decisions of courts.  Similar to statutory law passed by federal or state legislatures, court decisions in and of themselves are law.  Case law is created when courts interpret and apply legal principles related to constitutions, statues, regulations, or decisions made by other courts.

Cases begin in a trial court where the parties present facts and the court makes a ruling.  Only in rare circumstances are trial court decisions published.  Generally, it is only when one of the parties does not agree with the trial court ruling and the case is appealed that the decision of the appellate court is published in official reporters.

Under our federal system, cases can originate in both state and federal courts.  Federal cases typically cover issues concerning federal laws and those cases invoking federal jurisdiction.  State cases typically involve local issues such as family, criminal, and property law.  Since there can be subject overlap between these two systems, it is always good practice to search topically for both federal and state cases when doing your legal research.

You can find cases both online and in printed form.  It is helpful to know in what bound reporter the case you are looking for is published in even if you do a majority of your research online.  This will allow you to better understand legal citation and aid in assessing precedential value.

 

WEST'S NATIONAL REPORTER SYSTEM

Federal Reporters on a shelf in a library

"Law Library Books: Federal Reporter" by Janet Lindenmuth is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The National Reporter system has organized both federal and state case law into a cohesive body of law that can be researched within and across jurisdictions.  The full text of opinions as well as West's editorially-supplied headnotes, summaries, and Key Numbers are contained within each case.

Each West volume contains:

  • Tables of cases
  • Tables of statutes
  • Words and phrases defined by cases published within individual volumes
  • Tables of federal rules of civil procedure and evidence interpreted by cases
  • Digests of cases with key numbers for subject areas.

 

 

 

 

 

Federal Case Law

United States Supreme Court Building

 

 

The federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.  This means that they can only hear cases which are authorized by federal statues or the United States Constitution.  The federal court system has three levels: district courts (trial courts), circuit courts (first level of appeal), and the U.S. Supreme Court. There are 94 district courts and 13 circuit courts.

 

 

 

 

"US Supreme Court" by David is licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

Federal Courts
Court Type

Description

United States Supreme Court The United States Supreme Court is the nation's highest court and hears cases brought in federal court or in state courts where federal law is at issue.  An example of the latter occurs where a person in state court asserts an issue related to the United States Constitution.
United States Courts of Appeals (Circuit Courts of Appeal)

After a federal district court has issued a decision, the case may be appealed to a U.S. Court of Appeal.  Circuit Courts hear appeals from cases originating from the state district courts that the circuit court covers. There are 11 numbered federal circuits dividing the United States into regions plus a 12th known as the D.C. Circuit, and a 13th called the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit which has jurisdiction over particular subject areas. Texas is in the Fifth Circuit: map of the United States Federal Circuits 

United States District Courts District Courts are federal trial courts.  They hear cases which arise over disputes regarding federal law or related to parties residing in different states.  Federal district courts have also been established in specified subject areas.  Examples of these are U.S. bankruptcy courts (located within each federal district), U.S.Tax Court, U.S. Court of Federal Claims (for claims against the federal government), and U.S. Court of International Trade (for civil actions arising out of U.S. customs and trade laws).  There are 94 federal district courts in the United States: federal district and bankruptcy courts and court website links

For more information on federal court roles and structure,

 

DATABASES CONTAINING FEDERAL CASES

 

Gavel and law books on a table

 

"Court Gavel - Judge's Gavel - Courtroom" by wp paarz is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

 

  • WESTLAW NEXT: The primary database to search for federal case law is Westlaw NEXT.  From the main search page you can either click cases from the All Content tab or you can select the Federal Materials tab to access all Federal Cases or search within specific Circuits.

 

  • HEIN ONLINE:  Another source for federal case law is Hein Online. From the home page, select case law to access the U.S. Supreme Court Library.

 

  • GOOGLE SCHOLAR:  Google Scholar also provides access to case law and allows the user to limit searches to Supreme Court or particular Federal Circuits.

 

  • FINDAWThis database provides access to United States Supreme Court cases as well as United States Courts of Appeals and Federal Trial Court decisions.

 

REPORTER COVERAGE: FEDERAL

 

You can also find print copies of cases in bound reporters. The following chart shows which court decisions are located within each reporter series.

Federal Reporter Coverage
Title Abbreviation Description/Coverage

Supreme Court Reporter

 

S.Ct

Supreme Court  

                                       Supreme Court reporter books

     "Supreme Court Reporters" by Adam Engelhart is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

United States Reports U.S. Supreme Court
Federal Reporter F.

U.S. Courts of Appeal

                                         Federal Reporter books

              "Federal Reporter" by Adam Engelhart is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Federal Reporter, second series F.2d U.S. Courts of Appeal
Federal Reporter, third series F.3d U.S. Courts of Appeal
Federal Supplement F.Supp.

U.S. District Courts

                                       Federal Supplement books

                "Federal Supplement" by Adam Engelhart is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Federal Supplement, second series F.Supp.2d U.S. District Courts
Federal Supplement, third series F.Supp.3d U.S. District Courts
Federal Rules Decisions F.R.D.

Select U.S. District Court cases concerning Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, and Federal Rules of Evidence not published in the Federal Supplement.

                                                     Federal Rules Decisions books

             "Federal Rules Decisions" by Adam Engelhart is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Bankruptcy Reporter B.R. Decisions of bankruptcy-specific federal courts at all levels.
Federal Appendix Fed.Appx. U.S. Courts of Appeal cases not published in the Federal Reporter.

 

A case citation will tell you in what publication to find a case, on which page the case begins, which court decided the case, and in which year the case was rendered.  For a list of federal case reporter abbreviations, select the Finding Federal Case Law tab.

EXAMPLES:

United States District Court:

  • 666 F.Supp. 1027 (N.D. Ohio 1987). This citation tells you that this case appears in volume 666 of the Federal Supplement and begins on page 1027 of that volume.  The information in parentheses tells you that this is a United States District Circuit for the Northern District of Ohio case and the decision of the Court occurred in 1987.

United States Court of Appeals:

  • 241 F.3d 619 (8th Cir. 2001). This citation tells you that this case appears in volume 241 of the Federal Reporter, third series and begins on page 619 of that volume.  The information in parentheses tells you that this is an 8th Circuit Court of Appeals case and the decision of the Court occurred in 2001.

United States Supreme Court:

  • 442 U.S. 127, 99 S.Ct. 2205 (1979).  This is a U.S. Supreme Court case.  Therefore, it appears in United States Reports, volume 442, page 127 AND in the Supreme Court Reporter, volume 99, page 2205. 

For more information on reading federal case citation, see Table 1.1: Federal Judicial and Legislative Materials in The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, 20th ed.

  • United States Courts:  Contains information about Federal Courts, court role and structure, rules and procedures, judges, judiciary policies and much more.

 

  • United States Supreme Court: Home page for the United States Supreme Court.  Contains opinions, recent decisions, filings and rules, information about the Court, docket search, pending case information, and news.

 

  • PREVIEW of United States Supreme Court Cases: Provided by the American Bar Association, this site provides access to briefs submitted by parties in U.S. Supreme Court cases, argument calendar, alphabetical listing of cases by term, and information about the Supreme Court nomination process.   PREVIEW articles (providing expert, plain-language analysis of all cases given plenary review by the Supreme Court in advance of oral argument) can be accessed via HeinOnline (see link below).  Preview issues 1-7 precede the Court’s seven argument sessions from October to April. Preview issue 8 which is published in July following the close of the Court’s term at the end of June, reviews the term using a combination of charts, statistics, case summaries, and essays.

 

 

  • PACER:  Public Access to Court Electronic Records:  Electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information online from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts, and the PACER Case Locator
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Texas Case Law

 

 

South Western Reporter books on a shelf in a library

 

Image dedicated pursuant to CC0 1.0

  

The Texas court system is composed of three basic levels: trial, appellate, and supreme. Graphic of the structure of the Texas courts

Texas Courts
Court Description

The Supreme Court of Texas and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Seal of the Supreme Court of the State of Texas

Texas has two supreme courts, also known as courts of last resort.  The courts of last resort hear cases that are appealed from lower courts.  They also consider cases that are appealed from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Civil appeals are handled by the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hears criminal appeals including those involving death penalty sentences.

Texas Courts of Appeals

After a trial court has issued a decision, the case may be appealed to one of fourteen state appellate courts in Texas. 

Texas Trial Courts

There are numerous trial courts in Texas.  Trial courts include state district courts, county courts, justice of the peace courts, and municipal courts. 

 

  • District courts: These are state trial courts of general jurisdiction.  These courts preside over particular geographical areas specified by statute.

 

  • County courts: Each county in Texas has a county court which is presided over by a county judge.  In highly populated counties, the Texas Legislature has established statutory county courts (county courts at law or statutory probate courts) to assist the county court.

 

  • Justice of the Peace Courts:  These courts have jurisdiction in misdemeanor cases where the conviction sentence is by fine only and in civil actions where the amount in controversy does not exceed $10,000. 

 

  • Municipal Courts: Municipal courts are statutorily created to preside in each incorporated city in the state of Texas. Jurisdiction includes violation of municipal ordinances, concurrent jurisdiction over misdemeanor state law violations within municipal geographical areas, and other specified types of cases.
Texas Federal Courts:
  • Trial Courts: The State of Texas has four federal district courts: The United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, The United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas and the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas.

 

  • Appellate Courts:  Texas is part of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  This court hears appeals from each of the four district courts listed above.  Other jurisdictions in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals are the Eastern District of Louisiana, Middle District of Louisiana, Western District of Louisiana, Northern District of Mississippi, and the Southern District of Mississippi.

 

  • Supreme Court: Appeals originating from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals are generally heard by the United States Supreme Court.  However, in some circumstances the Supreme Court of Texas or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hears these appeals.

For more information on Texas government and the Texas Judicial System please see the Texas Government Research Guide created by Government Documents Librarian Tami Melancon.

 

Texas District Courts and other local courts

       Texas trial court cases (Municipal Court, Justice of the Peace Courts, and District Court) are not published.  While some larger counties provide access to online court dockets, this access does not always include access to documents.  The best way to obtain documents from the district or local courts is to contact the clerk of court for the particular court that you are interested in and make a request. 

 

DATABASES CONTAINING TEXAS CASES

 

  • WESTLAW NEXT: The primary database to search for Texas case law is Westlaw NEXT.  From the main search page you can either select cases from the All Content tab, then choose Texas under Cases by State, or you can select the State Materials tab, select Texas, the choose from the list of available jurisdictions.

 

  • FINDLAW: This database allows the user to browse Texas courts including Texas Courts of Appeals, Texas Courts of Criminal Appeals, and the Supreme Court of Texas.  Within this database the user can search by party name, docket number, or keyword.

 

REPORTER COVERAGE: TEXAS STATE AND FEDERAL

 

Texas state and federal reporter coverage
Title Abbreviation Description/Coverage
South Western Reporter S.W. State courts of Texas
South Western Reporter, second series S.W.2d State courts of Texas
South Western Reporter, third series S.W.3d State courts of Texas
Federal Supplement F.Supp. Texas Federal District Courts: United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, United States District Court for the Western District of Texas
Federal Supplement, second series F.Supp.2d Texas Federal District Courts: United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, United States District Court for the Western District of Texas
Federal Supplement, third series F.Supp.3d Texas Federal District Courts: United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, United States District Court for the Western District of Texas
Federal Reporter F. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
Federal Reporter, second series F.2d Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
Federal Reporter, third series F.3d Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

 

A case citation will tell you in what publication to find a case, on which page the case begins, which court decided the case, and in what year the decision was rendered.  For a list of Texas case reporter abbreviations, select the Finding Texas Case Law tab.

EXAMPLES:

   Texas Courts of Appeals:

  • 972 S.W.2d 180 (Tex.App.1998).  This citation tells you that this case appears in volume 972 of the South Western Reporter, second series and that it begins on page 180.  The information in parentheses tells you that this is a Texas courts of appeals case and that the decision occurred in 1998.

    Texas Court of Criminal Appeals:

  • 876 S.W.2d 330 (Tex.Crim.App. 1994).  This citation tells you that this case appears in volume 876 of the South Western Reporter, second series and this it begins on page 330.  The information in parentheses tells you that this is a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals case and that the decision occurred in 1994.

    Supreme Court of Texas:

  • 38 S.W.3d 103 (Tex. 2000).  This citation tells you that this case appears in volume 38 of the South Western Reporter, third series and that it begins on page 103 of that volume.  The information in parentheses tells you that this is a Texas Supreme Court case and that the decision occurred in 2000.

    Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals:

  • 241 F.3d 417 (5th Cir. 2001).  This citation tells you that this case appears in volume 241 of the Federal Reporter, third series and that it begins on page 417 of that volume.  The information in parentheses tells you that this is a United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals case and that the decision occurred in 2001.

    United States District Court:

  • 666 F. Supp. 948 (N.D.Tex. 1987).  This citation tells you that this case appears in volume 666 of the Federal Supplement and it begins on page 948 of that volume.  The information in parentheses tells you that this is a United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas case and that the decision occurred in 1987.

For more information on reading Texas case citation, see Table 1.3: States and the District of Columbia in The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, 20th ed.

 

 

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Other States

 

DATABASES CONTAINING STATE CASES

  • WESTLAW (see link below): The primary database to search for state case law is Westaw.  From the main search page you can select cases from the All Content tab or select the state you wish to search under Cases by State. You can also select the State Materials tab, choose a state, then choose from the list of available jurisdictions.

 

  • FINDLAW: This database allows the user to browse U.S. Courts of Appeal by Circuit and by state.

 

REPORTER COVERAGE: ALL STATES

 

State Reporters
Title Abbreviation States Covered
Atlantic Reporter A. CT, DE. DC. ME. MD. NH, NJ, PA, RI, VT
Atlantic Reporter, second series A.2d CT, DE. DC. ME. MD. NH, NJ, PA, RI, VT
Atlantic Reporter, third series A.3d CT, DE. DC. ME. MD. NH, NJ, PA, RI, VT
North Eastern Reporter N.E. IL, IN, MA, NY, OH
North Eastern Reporter, second series N.E.2d IL, IN, MA, NY, OH
North Eastern Reporter, third series N.E.3d IL, IN, MA, NY, OH
North Western Reporter N.W. IA, MI, MN, NE, ND, SD, WI
North Western Reporter, second series N.W.2d IA, MI, MN, NE, ND, SD, WI
South Eastern Reporter S.E. GA, NC, SC, VA, WV
South Eastern Reporter, second series S.E.2d GA, NC, SC, VA, WV
Southern Reporter So. AL, FL, LA, MS
Southern Reporter, second series So.2d AL, FL, LA, MS
Southern Reporter, third series So.3d AL, FL, LA, MS
South Western Reporter S.W. AR, KY, MO, TN, TX
South Western Reporter, second series S.W.2d AR, KY, MO, TN, TX
South Western Reporter, third series S.W.3d AR, KY, MO, TN, TX
Pacific Reporter P.

AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, KS, MT, NV, NM, OK, OR, UT, WA, WY

Pacific Reporter, second series P.2d AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, KS, MT, NV, NM, OK, OR, UT, WA, WY
Pacific Reporter, third series P.3d AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, KS, MT, NV, NM, OK, OR, UT, WA, WY

 

A case citation will tell you in what publication to find a case, which which page the case begins, which court decided the case, and in what year the decision was rendered. For a list of state reporter abbreviations, select the Finding State Case Law tab.

EXAMPLES:

Virginia: United States District Court:

  • 369 F.Supp.2d 770 (E.D.Vir. 2005): This citation tells you that this case appears in volume 369 of the Federal Supplement and that the case appears on page 770 of that volume.  The information in parentheses indicates that this is a case that was heard in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and that the decision occurred in 2005.

North Carolina: Court of Appeals:

  • 703 S.E.2d 811 (N.C. Ct. App. 2010).  This citation tells you that this case appears in volume 703 of the South Eastern Reporter, second series and that the case appears on page 811 of that volume.  The information in parentheses indicates that this is a Court of Appeals of North Carolina case and that the decision occurred in 2010.

Illinois: Supreme Court:

  • 32 N.E.3d 1043 (Ill. 2015). This citation tells you that this case appears in volume 32 of the North Eastern Reporter, third series and that the case appears on page 1043 of that volume.  The information in parentheses indicates that this is an Illinois Supreme Court case and that the decision occurred in 2015.

For more information on reading state case citation, see Table 1.3: States and the District of Columbia in The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, 20th ed.

 

 

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Print Resources at NGL

Print Reporters at NGL
Reporter Coverage Call Number
Southwestern Reporter  Texas state cases REF KF 101 .S6    
Federal Supplement United States District Court cases REF KF 105.1 F4
Federal Reporter United States Court of Appeals cases  REF KF 105 .F38
Supreme Court Reporter Supreme Court cases REF KF 8741 .A6 U5541
Untied States Reports

Supreme Court cases

(official publication of the Supreme Court published by the United States Government Publishing Office (GPO))

REF KF 8741 .A6 U554

Current Case Reporters

Recent Decisions
Reporter Coverage Call Number
Criminal Law Reporter Selects those cases (Federal and State) of immediate interest to criminal lawyers and to criminal justice practitioners REF KF9615 .C7

United States Law Week

Cites the latest cases, some in full text, before they appear in any other law service.  This report is generated weekly and covers development in many areas of law.

REF K25 .N5 

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