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PLA 4103: Doing Legal Research

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How? - Search Tips

If this is your first time doing case law research, here are some helpful pointers you should know before you start diving into the resources listed in this research guide.  

How do cases move through the Courts, and what will I find online?

Cases move up through either the state or federal courts depending on the legal question being considered.  Cases at each level of the court system are published in their own separate reporter, so keep the level of court in mind when using legal literature.

If your case started in a state court, it was first heard in a minor court (In FL, for example: county or circuit court).  Selected decisions from these courts are published in Florida Law Weekly, a fee-based print and electronic resource. If you do not have access to Florida Law Weekly, the cases are public information, and can be viewed by going to the court where the case was tried and looking at the case file. See - Florida Courts 

Cases appealed to the State Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court are published in a state reporter.  Each state has its own reporter.  Selected cases are printed in regional reporters covering several states.  The one for our region is called the Southern Reporter (citation example - 992 So. 2d 132) .  Others are, for example, the Atlantic Reporter, Pacific Reporter, etc.

If your case was tried in federal courts, it started in a District Court.  Those decisions are published selectively in Federal Supplement reporter series.  Court of Appeals cases are published in a separate reporter, Federal Reporter.  There are several sources for US Supreme Court decisions.

How do I find a specific Case?

In legal research, there are two ways of citing a specific case.  You can refer to its 'short name' (for example, Plessy vs. Ferguson), or its official citation number (545 U.S. 913).  When using a database like Lexis-Nexis, you can use the 'short name', the citation, or a combination of keywords to search for cases.  However, each of these search types will yield different sorts of results.  

Using Short Name:

In most cases, just knowing the plantiff and defendant will be enough to find your case using Lexis-Nexis or another tool.  In Lexis-Nexis there is a set of search boxes where you can type in the short names to find a particular case.  It is important to note though, that in some cases there may be several cases where there are a large number of plantiffs or defendants (think about class action lawsuits).  If you are searching for a case with fairly common names (for example, Clinton v. Jones), you may find that there are a large number of search results to go through.  If your case has a fairly unique name though (for example, Grokster) you should find fewer results. 

You also have to watch out for acronyms (for example, MGM in MGM v. Grokster).  Sometimes the database will not recognize an acronym, and you will be forced to type out each word.  MGM = Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or US = United States, etc.

Using Citations: 

As mentioned above, decisions are published in official court reporters, based on where the case takes place.  These reporters have an official citation (similar to the way every journal article has a citation) that can be used to track a specific court case.  These citations are unique, and are the most accurate way of finding the full text of a specific case.  Keep in mind that citations are not like call numbers, they are not browsable.  They are simply based on when the case was recorded in the official reporter the citation format is always the same:

Volume Number  Title of Reporter  Page Number

      545                        U.S.               913 

If the case has a citation 545 U.S. 913, we know it is from volume 545 from the U.S. Reports, and it starts on page 913.  Even when we are looking for the full text of a case online, it will always use the citation from the print volumes.  Whenever you find a useful court case, copy down the citation number!  It will be the fastest way for you to track down your case again, and to use other legal tools like Shepard's Citations. 


Above text based on UC Santa Barbara's guide by Chris Granatino.