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Successful Summer Strategies: Research in the Real World: Case Law Research

Research in the Real World Starts Here. Use this guide to orient yourself to the world and research environment.

Citing to Cases

Cases are covered in Rule 10.  Several of The Bluebook's tables are helpful for citing cases:

T1 lists reporters to cite for each federal and state court.

T6 provides case names and institutional authors

T7 tells you how to abbreviate case names and court names.

T8 gives you abbreviations for explanatory phrases, such as affirmance or overruling.

T10 tells you how to abbreviate state names in case citations.

General Tips

  1. Identify your jurisdiction.  Use Table One of The Bluebook to determine the appellate court structure of the controlling jurisdiction. Opinions of the highest level appellate court are mandatory authority. If the highest court has not ruled, intermediate level appellate court cases are the best authority, but they do not bind the higher level court.
  2. Start with what you know. Look for cases in the annotations of a known statute or rule; read and Shepardize or KeyCite a known case; use headnotes to locate additional cases by digest searching (if you have West topics and key numbers) or by using the headnotes to find similar cases while researching electronically.
  3. Read the most recent cases first, as they will reflect the current state of the law and also contain citations to earlier relevant cases.
  4. Use the headnotes and syllabi to eliminate irrelevant cases, but remember that in order to fully understand a holding you must read the entire opinion.
  5. Use citators, Shepard’s on Lexis or KeyCite on Westlaw, to determine the validity and precedential value of each case you intend to rely upon or cite. Do this as soon as you locate a relevant case.
  6. Print or electronic? This will depend partly on whether you are authorized by your employer to use Lexis or Westlaw for a given project. Print sources usually provide more help for researchers beginning a new topic.  Their indexes and references are designed to direct you to the most useful terms for gathering information on point.  If you already have a citation and can proceed from there, electronic sources would be a good starting point.


Finding Cases

Keyword searching in case law databases is not always the best starting place.  You may save a great deal of time on research by taking a short cut through some other legal sources.  Consider first whether your topic is generally addressed by common law or whether it may be constitutional, procedural, or statutory.  Interpreting case law will still be relevant, but the route to the cases will be more direct.

Use Secondary Sources

Secondary sources give the framework of the law, introduce the topic, offer expert analysis, and provide references to primary authority (cases, statutes, regulations). Books, law review articles, legal encyclopedias, and attorney practice materials are examples of secondary sources.

Use an Annotated Code

If you are researching a statute, there may be case law interpreting it.  Annotations summarize and cite to case law.  The federal annotated statutes are in two sets.

  • Westlaw's United States Code Annotated (USCA)
  • Lexis's United States Code Service (USCS)

All states have an annotated code.  Wyoming statutes are in two sets.

  • Wyoming Statutes Annotated published by Lexis
  • West's Wyoming Statutes Annotated published by Thomson Reuters/West

Use KeyCite or Shepard's

If you have one good case in your jurisdiction, you can identify later court decisions that refer to or mention it. Both services can be used to determine if a specific case has been affirmed, overruled, or modified by a later court decision.  They also reveal cases citing to the same legal issue.

Use a Digest

If you have a good case, regardless of whether it is in your jurisdiction, you can use West's Key Number Digest (online or in print) or Lexis's headnotes to find related cases on your topic.

Search full-text online

For U.S. Supreme Court cases, use one or more of the following sources (coverage varies):

For U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals cases, try the following:

For U.S. District Court cases, try:

For state cases, consult the following sources: