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Case Law Research: Introduction

A guide designed for first year law students on the MU Law Library's resources for case law research.

What is Case Law?

Case law refers to law found in decisions issued by courts. The level of authority of particular cases will vary depending on the type of court issuing the decision, the jurisdiction, and the type of case. 

Tutorial: Understanding Jurisdiction 

Where are State Cases Found?

 

Title of Publication (All are Commerical)* Jurisdiction
Atlantic Reporter Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont
Southern Reporter Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi
South Eastern Reporter Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia
South Western Reporter Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas
North Eastern Reporter Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio
North Western Reporter Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin
Pacific Reporter Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming
California Reporter California Supreme Court and appellate courts
New York Supplement New York Court of Appeals, Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court and additional state courts

*Many states no longer publish an official reporter.  For a list of states that still have an official reporter consult table T1.3 in the Bluebook.

Court Structure

Federal Courts: There are three tiers of courts in the federal system. 

  1. United States Supreme Court: Highest court in the United States. Hears a limited number of cases each year on a discretionary basis. Those cases may originate in state or federal courts.  
  2. US Courts of Appeals: There are 13 circuits that hear appeals from district courts located within those circuits. 
  3. US District Courts: The trial courts of the federal system, with jurisdiction over federal criminal and civil matters. 

Missouri Courts: There are three tiers of courts in the Missouri. 

  1. Supreme Court of Missouri: Highest court in the state. Hears certain types of cases as a matter or right, but most are heard at the discretion of the Court. 
  2. Missouri Court of Appeals: These courts hear appeals of circuit court decisions. Divided into three regional districts: Eastern, Southern, and Western. 
  3. Circuit Courts: These are the main trial courts for the state with general authority over criminal and civil cases.
    • Specialized Courts: There are a number of specialized divisions within circuit courts. These include juvenile courts. probate courts, family courts, and drug courts. 

Where are Federal Cases Found?

Title of Publication Jurisdiction Type of Publication
United States Reports U.S. Supreme Court Official: United States Government Publication
United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers' Edition U.S. Supreme Court Commercial: Lexis
West's Supreme Court Reporter U.S. Supreme Court Commerical: West
Federal Rporter Federal Courts of Appeal (the Circuit Courts) Commerical: West
Federal Supplement Federal District Courts: Decisions designated for publication by District Court judges Commerical: West
Federal Appendix Federal District Courts: Unpublished Cases Commerical: West

                        

Reading an Opinion

Reading case law can be confusing when your just starting out. This guide from Westlaw can help you understand the different components of a typical appellate case. 

Not All Cases Are Published

It is important to remember that most court decisions are never published in reporters or made available electronically. This is often the case with trial decisions and appellate court decisions that do not have precedential weight. Whether unpublished decisions can be cited depends on the jurisdiction.