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About Legal Research

Legal research skills can be a powerful tool for students writing about legal issues. Knowing where to find detailed, accurate information about the law can be a powerful tool in analyzing legal questions. Reading the opinions of federal judges and Supreme Court Justices can provide valuable insight into policy choices.

Legal Research Basics

There are three main sources for legal research, one for each of the three branches of government. The primary source for legal research is the laws developed by the legislative branch. In the United States, bills are passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate and signed by the President into law. The laws are then codified into the United States Code, a compilation of all existing federal laws.

The second main source for legal research is the regulations drafted by federal agencies. Often, Congress will pass a law and give an executive-branch agency the authority to write regulations implementing the law. The Code of Federal Regulations is a compilation of all the regulations issued by federal agencies. These regulations generally have the force of law.

The third main source for legal research is the opinions published by the federal courts. This section of the module will focus on how to find and cite these resources.

District Court Opinions

Opinions of judges serving in the federal district courts are complied in the Federal Supplement. The Federal Supplement is a publication of West Publishing, which specializes in publishing legal opinions. Currently, there are two "series" in the Federal Supplement, with each series consisting of a thousand volumes. The first series of the Federal Supplement started in 1932; the second series started publication in 1998.

The key to finding federal caselaw is understanding how different cases are cited at different levels. The citations may look cryptic at first, but once you grasp the pattern, they're relatively easy to use and understand. The following is an example of a citation from a federal district court opinion:

The following is an example of a citation from a federal district court opinion:

Grutter v. Bollinger, 137 F. Supp. 2d 874 (S.D. Mich. 2001)

In order to better understand what this citation means, we can break down the citation into its constituent parts, as in the table below:













F. Supp 2d


S.D. Mich.


Each segment of the citation has a specific meaning, as follows:

  • Plaintiff: The plaintiff is the person or organization bringing the lawsuit. The name listed is always the last name of the plaintiff. In cases where there is more than one plaintiff, the name listed in the citation is the first plaintiff named in the lawsuit, sometimes known as the "lead" plaintiff.

  • Versus: The abbreviation v. for "versus" separates the name of the plaintiff from the name of the defendant.

  • Defendant: The defendant is the person who the plaintiff is suing. In cases where there is more than one defendant, the name listed in the citation is the first defendant named in the lawsuit.

  • Volume: Refers to the bound volume of the reporter where the case can be found. In this example, the case is in Volume 137.

  • Reporter: Refers to the reporter where the case is found. In this example, the case is found in the second series of the Federal Supplement.

  • Page: Refers to the first page of the volume where the case is found. In this example, the case begins on page 874 of Volume 137 of the Federal Supplement, second series.

  • Court: Refers to the court that heard the case. In this example, the court is the United States District Court for the Southern District of Michigan.

  • Year: The year the court's decision was announced.

Circuit Court Opinions

Opinions of judges serving in the federal district courts are complied in the Federal Reporter. Like the Federal Supplement, the Federal Reporter is a publication of West Publishing. The Federal Reporter is in its third "series", which began in 1993.

The following is an example of a citation from a federal circuit court opinion:

Grutter v. Bollinger, 288 F.3d 732 (6th Cir. 2002)

Circuit court opinions follow the same pattern as district court opinions. In this example, the case can be found by going to Volume 288 of the Federal Reporter, third series, and going to page 732. Since all district court cases are in the Federal Supplement (F. Supp. or F. Supp. 2d) and all circuit court cases are in the Federal Reporter (F., F.2d or F.3d), it is easy to tell at a glance whether an opinion is from a district or circuit court.

Supreme Court Opinions

The following is an example of a citation from a Supreme Court opinion:

Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306; 123 S. Ct. 2325; 156 L. Ed. 2d 304 (2003)

A quick glance at this citation shows that it is quite a bit different than citations for lower courts. This is because Supreme Court cases are published in three different reporters. The first reporter listed (U.S.) is the United States Reports, which is the official compilation of Supreme Court opinions published by the federal government. The second reporter listed (S. Ct.) is the Supreme Court Reporter, published by West Publishing. The third reporter listed is the Lawyer's Edition (L. Ed, L.Ed. 2d) which is published by the Reed Elsevier publishing company. Because the two unofficial reporters contain different information, and because they began publication in different years, they have a different volume and page scheme than the official report. Additionally, for some historic Supreme Court decisions before 1874, the citation can include the name of the official then responsible for compiling the volume.

Generally, it is acceptable to only cite to the United States Reports in citing a Supreme Court case, because it is the official reporter. Citing to the other two reporters is helpful but not necessary. Also, unlike citations for other courts, the Supreme Court is never named in the citation. The three reporters for the Supreme Court cover only Supreme Court decisions, so it is not necessary to include anything other than the year in the parenthesis.

Finding Court Opinions

The most effective way to conduct legal research and find court opinions is through an online legal database. The two main commercial databases are the Westlaw and Lexis services. Both of these services are primarily marketed to law firms and therefore can be very costly to use. However, law students are generally allowed free access to both services. Additionally, a local law library or university library may have some degree of access to one service or another available to researchers.

Several Internet-based free legal research tools are readily available to students. The FindLaw website provides free searching of many Supreme Court and circuit court opinions. The FindLaw service does not allow for the complex keyword searches that are available through Westlaw and Lexis, and does not include the pagination or the headnotes available through those services. Additionally, FindLaw does not currently include district court opinions. However, despite its limitations, FindLaw is an easy way to find some relevant opinions.

The Legal Information Institute (LII) at the Cornell Law School has a wealth of information available online. The LII has the text of the United States Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, Supreme Court decisions, federal court rules, and other important research tools.

Additionally, some courts have placed some opinions online. The Supreme Court website has the most recent volumes of the United States Reports online, as well as newly-released "slip opinions". Many circuit courts and district courts have placed some of their opinions online, either on their websites or through partnerships with law schools. The LII maintains a page with links to court websites where these opinions can be found.

For searches by subject in a law library, one good place to start is with the Federal Digest series by West Publishing. The Federal Digest reproduces the headnotes from recent cases and organizes them by subject matter. Checking out the Federal Digest on a relevant issue can lead you to cases that may be on point.

Of course, for a novice researcher, the best tool available is your local law librarian. Law librarians can help guide students through the maze of legal resources and explain the best way to find a particular case.

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