Briefs are valuable to researchers because they state the legal arguments the parties relied upon in pursuing or defending their case. The briefs also explain the facts of a case from a particular point of view. The records include pleadings, motions, trial transcripts and other documents from prior stages of the litigation. Reviewing records and briefs can help researchers to understand why the Court decided a case the way that it did and to explore the arguments that prevailed or failed. As well, it may be useful and interesting to a researcher to review petitions for certiorari in cases the Court declined to hear.
Understanding Supreme Court Briefs
In 1821, the Supreme Court amended its rules by adding a requirement that the parties submit briefs. Published in volume 19 U.S. Reports (6 Wheat.), the rule stated that "no cause . . . will be heard by the Court, until the parties shall have furnished the Court with a printed brief . . . containing the substance of all the material pleadings, facts, and documents, on which the parties rely, and the points of law and fact intended to be presented at the argument." Thus began a practice that is a significant part of Supreme Court litigation.
Today, there are several rules governing Supreme Court records and briefs:
Rules 12, 14, 15 on petitions for writ of certiorari.
Rules 17, 18, 19, 20 on procedure when asserting other jurisdiction.
Rule 24 on content requirements of merits briefs.
Rule 25 establishing filing deadlines for merits briefs.
Rule 26 on the joint appendix, which contains the records from courts below.
Rules 33 and 34 governing document preparation, page limits, printing and style requirements.
Rule 37 on amicus curiae briefs.
Other relevant rules:
Rule 29 on filing and service of documents.
Rule 32 on models, diagrams, exhibits.
Rule 39 on proceedings in forma pauperis.
A typical set of documents pertaining to a particular case includes:
1. Documents filed when seeking review by the Court (Petition Stage): Petition for certiorari, brief in opposition, petitioner's reply brief, supplemental briefs filed by any party, and amicus briefs filed at the petition stage. See Rules 12, 14, 15, 33, 34, 37.
2. Documents filed after review is granted (Merits Stage): The joint appendix, petitioner and respondent merits briefs, petitioner reply brief, supplemental briefs, amicus briefs on the merits. See Rules 24, 25, 26, 33, 34, 37.
The documents are submitted in booklet format as required by Rule 33. (See Rule 39 for exceptions applying to parties proceeding in forma pauperis). Booklets have different colors depending upon the type of document and documents are of varying lengths. Booklet colors and page limits are stated in Rule 33(g). Rule 33(f) requires that forty copies of each document be filed, several of which are then distributed to depositories of printed Supreme Court briefs. Cornell Law Library is one of these depositories. Thus, the library has a significant print collection of Supreme Court records and briefs. It also has a large online collection.
The Collection at Cornell Law Library
The Collection at Cornell Law Library
The collection is available in print and online. Ask at the Reference or Circulation desks (Reading Room, 3rd floor) to see items from the print collection.
Key points to remember:
- The online collection begins in 1832 (see Online Sources for Supreme Court Briefs).
- The print collection begins 1928 (Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila, 280 U.S. 1 (1929)).
- The clerk of the Court places petitions for certiorari on the docket shortly after they are received and reviewed for acceptability. The docket number is in term year-number format. Remember that cases granted review are not necessarily heard in the same year in which they were docketed.
- Print dockets from the Court's prior term are received at Cornell Law Library in the late Fall.
- The most recent print documents on the shelf have filing dates 1 - 2 years back. It may take up to three years to complete the document collection for a particular case.
- The print collection is organized by U.S. Reports citation from 1928 through 1976. Print documents in this part of the collection are bound by U.S. Reports citation.
- In the mid-1970s, it became standard practice to organize the documents by Supreme Court docket number. The print collection which is organized by docket number includes documents docketed in the 1972, 1973, and 1974 terms. However, a continuous chronology of documents begins with items docketed in the 1975 term.
- The part of the print collection organized by docket number is unbound. Each brief or petition is separately bound.
- The collection is supplemented with the multi-volume Landmark Briefs and Arguments of the Supreme Court of the United States, KF101.8 .K97. The Law Library holds the first 80 volumes, years 1793 to 1974. This is a selective set containing documents from well-known cases. The earliest cases, in the first two volumes, contain only oral argument summaries. The earliest briefs available date from 1856.
Online Sources for Supreme Court Briefs
Online Sources for Supreme Court Briefs
U.S. Supreme Court Records & Briefs
This database contains nearly 11 million pages of records and briefs brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in the period 1832-1978.
Includes selected coverage for merits and amicus briefs, petitions, and joint appendices beginning 1979 (with a few briefs from 1936-1978).
Westlaw Next U.S. Supreme Court Briefs, Petitions, and Joint Appendices
Includes selected coverage for briefs beginning 1930, petitions beginning 1985, and joint appendices beginning 1982.
Lexis Advance U.S. Supreme Court Briefs
Includes selected coverage for merits and amicus briefs, petitions, and joint appendices beginning 1979 (with a few briefs from 1936-1978). All merits and amicus briefs are available for cases granted certiorari after 1993-1994 term, and all petitions are available for cases granted certiorari after 1999-2000 term.
ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases
Current briefs. A source for the latest documents, this site provides access to petitioner and respondent merits briefs. Briefs are accessed by case name or argument date. This is the site the Supreme Court references with its link On-line MERITS BRIEFS
SCOTUSblog Petitions We're Watching
Part of the SCOTUSblog, users will find petition-stage documents for cases selected by the SCOTUSblog publisher that he believes have a chance to be granted cert. It currently covers from the October, 2006 Term forward. This can be a useful source for difficult-to-find cert petitions.
Office of the Solicitor General
Recent and archived briefs. This site provides access to briefs filed by the Solicitor General
. Coverage includes all briefs (except responses to in forma pauperis petitions) filed 1998 Term to present and selected briefs filed 1982-1996. The briefs can be searched or browsed by keyword, type or subject. HTML and PDF versions are available.
Selected briefs, 1999-2007. Access to briefs is by term of oral argument and then alphabetically by case name.
Where to Find Briefs
The Supreme Court website has additional information on accessing briefs
Free web sites available to all
Cornell Community - available to entire Cornell community
Law School Computers - available only using Law School workstations
Password Protected - access restricted to Law School students and faculty. Members of the Cornell Law School community can access the password list for password-protected databases by clicking HERE.
Personal Account - law students and faculty access using personal accounts. Contact the Law Library Reference Desk for more information.