What Is a Case?

A case is a written decision issued by a court, often referred to as a judicial opinion or decision. Federal courts and state courts use a similar hierarchical organization (lowest to highest): trial court, appellate court, highest court. The highest federal court is the United States Supreme Court, and the federal appellate courts are called the United States Courts of Appeal.  The U.S. Courts of Appeal are divided into thirteen circuits: the 1st through 11th Circuits, the District of Columbia Circuit, and the Federal Circuit.  Federal trial courts are called the United States District Courts.  While the U.S. Supreme Court publishes all its decisions, the Courts of Appeal and the District Courts publish only selected decisions.

Not all cases are freely available online, but many can be found using the resources listed below. Where and how cases are published depends on the court.

Where to Look for Cases

How to Find a Specific Case

Understanding case citations

A standard three-part citation is used to identify cases:

Volume Number Reporter Page Number
238 F.3d 68

A reporter is a series of physical volumes where case law is printed. Even cases accessed online are cited to reporters. The reporter titles are always abbreviated in citations. If the reporter has gone through volumes 1 – 999, a second series is issued beginning with volume 1 again. 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.

To find citations to relevant cases

  • The easiest way is to find a discussion of your topic in a secondary source.
  • Once you've found one good case, check the other cases it cites to.
  • Search the cases themselves with keywords. This is the most difficult way to research cases. Many of the resources for case law listed above allow for text searches. Try many combinations of keywords, including synonyms, and use advanced search features where available.
  • If you have a citation to a statute, find the statute in an annotated code listing cases that have interpreted your section. You will probably have to visit a law library to use an annotated code for your research.