Federal Cases

Federal Cases in the United States

What is a case?

Most legal disputes are settled out of court. Settlement information is usually confidential and so not available. Some legal disputes go to trial. As a general rule law libraries do not carry trial transcripts. A few legal disputes are appealed.

The court of last resort in each jurisdiction (the U.S. Supreme Court and the State Supreme Courts) usually hear appeals from the intermediate appellate courts. Sometimes cases are directly taken from the trial court. The U.S. Supreme Court is the court of last resort in the federal court system and has the final word on federal issues raised in state courts.

The decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court are found in the United States Reports (U.S.). The United States Reports is the official reporter for the Supreme Court. It is published by U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO).

Example: Idaho v. John Doe is the name and 411 U.S. 327 is the volume-reporter page.

The two unofficial reporters for the Supreme Court reports are Supreme Court Reporter (S.Ct) published by West, and United States Supreme Court Reports Lawyers Edition (L.Ed) published now by West and formerly by Lawyers Co-op (acquired by West). Most citations include all
three sources. This kind of a parallel citation can be of big help. (See the entry about Legal Citations Cases).

The decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court also appear in the Supreme Court Reporter (S.Ct) published by West.

Another set which contains Supreme Court decisions is United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers’ Edition. Lawyers edition is abbreviated L.Ed, or L.Ed.2d to indicate the second series.

For Example: Idaho v. Johnson is the name and 105 L.Ed.2d 342 the volume-reporter page.

The opinions in each of these sets appear in chronological order. The first step in locating a case within them is to identify its citation. If you already know the case citation, or you want to know more about citations, refer to the entry about Legal Citations Cases.


See the materials about cases of the following courts:

  • United States Court of Appeals
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
  • United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
  • United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
  • United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
  • United States Court of Federal Claims
  • United States Court of International Trade
  • United States Courts of Criminal Appeals for Branches of the U.S. Armed Forces
  • United States District Courts
  • United States Supreme Court
  • United States Tax Court

For more information, see also the entry about the United States Courts, generally.

Finding Federal Cases

This section provides information on how to find cases from the Federal Circuits and the U.S. District and U. S. Supreme Court. This section is divided into the following subsections or parts:

● Easy Ways to Begin
● Finding Cases by Topic
● Looking for a Case by Name

Easy Ways to Begin

Secondary sources are the easiest starting points for finding case citations. They contain summaries and explanations of a wide variety of legal topics. They also provide case citations in footnotes. The two national legal encyclopedias are Corpus Juris Secundum (C.J.S.) by West, and American Jurisprudence Second (Am. Jur.) also by West (formerly by Lawyers Co-op).

Also refer to Decisions of the United States Supreme Court (KF101.L39). Every decision of the Supreme Court is individually summarized. These summaries are printed in the order in which the cases were decided by the court. Notations to summaries indicate the volume and page at which the full opinion of the court may be found in the United States Reports, United States Supreme Court Reporter (S.Ct) and Lawyers Edition (L.Ed.2d).
Journals and law reviews are another good source for case citations. Journal articles will summarize the law on a topic and give citations to relevant cases. To find journal articles, use LegalTrac (Legal Resource Index).

LegalTrac is available on many law libraries and firms. In the search box type your subject or keyword.

Books are also good source for case citations. Keyword searching may be the best approach for finding books on legal topics.

Finding Cases by Topic

In order to find case citations on a particular topic, you may first consult a digest. A digest is a set of books that contain summaries of cases arranged by subject. All digests are divided into three parts: A general index (hint: start here), and table of cases/plaintiff-defendant table, and the topical arrangement of key numbers, with their corresponding head notes, in alphabetical order. Digests cover successive time periods. The digest to consult for recent federal cases is Federal Practice Digest series and American Digest System.

More instructions:

  • In the Federal Practice Digest series, look up your topic in the Descriptive Word Index (DWI).
  • Note the topics and key or section numbers listed. Check the beginning of the index volume for the list of topic abbreviations. Turn to the topic volumes and look up the key or section numbers.
  • Read the headnotes listed under each. Within a section cases are listed highest court, most recent case first.
  • Remember to check the pocket part.

The following explanation is based on Federal Practice Digest series, but all digests are organized in a similar fashion. The legal issue in this example in the area of constitutional rights – Whether flag burning is protected as free speech under the First Amendment.

  • Step 1: Locate the DESCRIPTIVE WORD INDEX. The index is contained in
    three different volumes (A-E,F-O,P-Z).
  • Step 2: Make a list of all the words you can think of that describe the issue: constitutional rights, freedom of speech, flag burning, First Amendment etc.
  • Step 3: Find the F-O volume of the Descriptive Word Index, and look up ‘Freedom of Speech’. This is listed as ‘Freedom’ in alphabetical order. ‘Freedom of Speech and Press’ is the subheading. Under this ‘Flag Burning’ is listed in alphabetical order.
  • Step 4: Flag Burning falls under Constitutional Law and is listed as ‘Const Law 90.1(2)’.
    Write down the topics and Key numbers. Every digest reference has two parts: a topic and a number. West digests use “Key numbers”, while other digests call them “sections”, but the principle is exactly the same.
  • Step 5: Look at the main volumes of the digest set and note that the topics appear in alphabetical topic order. Constitutional Law K67 to 91, appears on volume 21. Note that the key numbers are at the top of each page.
  • Step 6:Constitutional Law key number 90.1(2) begins on page 449 volume 21. Note that the name of the case, its citations appear at the end of each listing. The abbreviation “id.” means refer to the citations in the paragraph above. Write down the case citations that are relevant to your issue.
  • Step 7: Look up the same topic and key number in the pocket part inside the back cover of the volume. The pocket part lists the cases that have been issued since the hard bound volume was printed. This is one of the methods of updating legal publications. Digest pocket parts are reissued annually, and the sets are brought further up to date between annual pocket parts by supplementary pamphlets issued quarterly.

More instructions:

  • The pocket parts in Federal Practice Digest are updated with bimonthly pamphlets. Write down any additional relevant case citations.
  • Write down the name and the citations of the relevant cases.
  • Refer to the entry about Legal Citations Cases for information on how to use these citations to look up the complete written opinions.

Another way to find case citations by topic is to locate a journal article or law review. See the section on “Easy Ways to Begin.”

Looking for a Case by Name

  • If you already know the name of a case, look in the Table of Cases volume at the end of any digest. There is also a Defendant-Plaintiff Table. It is a good idea to check both places.
  • In addition to the names of the parties, you also need to know the jurisdiction of the case.
  • There is a separate digest for most of the 50 states and the Federal Courts.
  • To find the citation for the case Texas v. Johnson, look in the table of cases volume at the end of West’s Federal Practice Digest.

If you do not find a listing for the case, there are several different reasons, why it does not appear.

  • Case is from a different jurisdiction
  • Case is from a date not covered by that digest set
  • Court did not release the opinion for publication
  • Name you are looking under is an incorrect spelling

Another way to find cases by name is use LegalTrac. Only a few of the most famous cases will appear in LegalTrac, but it is worth a try. Case names are listed as subjects.

Legal Materials

For a discussion of Federal court decisions, see Fundamentals of Legal Research (West).

For the decisions of a particular Federal court, see the entires listed in the “Courts” section, above.

Federal Questions and Federal Cases: Jurisdiction over Cases “Arising under” Federal Law

There is some information in the United States Procedure Law section of this American Legal Encyclopedia about Federal Questions and Federal Cases: Jurisdiction over Cases “Arising under” Federal Law. For a wide overview, read about Choosing a Propert Court


See Also

Case Pulls
Docket Sheets
Federal Court Rules
Unreported Decisions

Further Reading

  • Legal Research: How to Find and Understand the Law by Stephen Elias KF 240 .E35
  • Legal Research in a Nutshell by Morris L. Cohen KF 240 .C54

Federal Cases: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Federal Cases. This part provides references, in relation to Federal Cases, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Federal Cases by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Federal Cases and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Federal Cases or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Federal Cases and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Federal Cases. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Federal Cases should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Federal Cases when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

*This resource guide is updated frequently. However, if you notice something is wrong or not working, or any resources that should be added, please notify us in any of the "Leave a Comment" area.

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