Legal Research FAQ (part 1 of 2)

Subject: Legal Research FAQ (part 1 of 2)

Archive-name: law/research/part1
Version: 0.97

The Legal Research FAQ
=== ===== ======== ===

     This document gives an overview of the standard resources and
tools used in conducting legal research on state and federal law in
the United States.  It also provides an overview of the structure
of the various state and federal court systems, and describes the
primary legal sources (case reporters, statutory and regulatory
compilations) where the law _per se_ can be located.  It is written
for laymen, not lawyers; no prior legal knowledge or research
experience is assumed.

     The Legal Research FAQ is posted to,,, news.answers, and misc.answers
around the 15th day of each month.  Comments or suggestions are
welcome, and should be sent to

     A current version of the FAQ may always be obtained via anonymous
ftp from in /pub/usenet/news.answers/law/research/part1
and part2.  If you do not have ftp access, send a mail message to with the lines
        send usenet/news.answers/law/research/part1
        send usenet/news.answers/law/research/part2
in the body of the message.

     Copyright 1994 Mark Eckenwiler.  Permission is granted to
redistribute this article in its entirety for noncommercial use
provided that this copyright notice is not removed or altered.  No
portion of this work may be sold, either by itself or as part of a
larger work, without the express written permission of the author;
this restriction covers all publication media, including (but not
limited to) CD-ROM.

     The author is an attorney admitted to practice in the State of
New York and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Against his better
judgment, he continues to live and work in New York City.  He is also
an amateur genealogist and would appreciate hearing from or about
anyone named Eckenwiler, Chmieletzski, Breazeale, or variants thereof.

     Special thanks go to Terry Carroll, Mike Godwin, Michael
Froomkin, Lori Fox, Larry Kolodney, Simona Nass, and Brian Smith.
This FAQ (and its author) benefitted immensely from their helpful
insights and criticisms.


[Part 1]


     1.1     Federal Courts
       1.1.1   Federal District Courts
       1.1.2   Federal Appeals Courts
       1.1.3   The Supreme Court
     1.2     State Courts

     2.1     Components of a Standard Cite
     2.2     Individual Case Reporters
       2.2.1   Federal Case Law Reporters
       2.2.2   State Case Law Reporters

     3.1     Statutory Citations
     3.2     Regulatory Citations

[Part 2]

     4.1     General Resources
       4.1.1   United States Code Annotated & United States Code Service
       4.1.2   Federal Practice Digest (FPD)
       4.1.3   Shepard's Case Citations
       4.1.4   Lexis and Westlaw
       4.1.5   ALR, Am. Jur., and CJS   ****** To be added
       4.1.6   Black's Law Dictionary
     4.2     Subject Area Resources
       4.2.1   Constitutional Law
       4.2.2   Evidence
       4.2.3   Civil Procedure
       4.2.4   Criminal Law
       4.2.5   Torts
       4.2.6   Contracts
       4.2.7   Copyright
     4.3     Putting It All Together



On the format of this FAQ:
     Toplevel entries in the outline are flagged with an "=" at the
left margin; to page through the main topics one by one, search
repeatedly for "=".
     The flag "**" preceding a term or the name of a resource
indicates that an extended explanation of that term/resource can be
found elsewhere in the FAQ.



     This section provides direct pointers to the answers to frequent

Q.   I have the name of a case, but not a cite to it.  How do I find
     the case?
A.   See section 4.1.2.

Q.   I know there's a famous Supreme Court case about .  Is
     there an easy way to look it up?
A.   See section 4.2.1, and the end of sections 1.1.3 and 4.1.3.

Q.   How can I find out how courts interpret a specific statute?
A.   See section 4.1.1.

Q.   I need to know if case X has been overruled.  How do I find out?
A.   See sections 4.1.3 and 4.1.4.

Q.   Where do I find the federal statute(s) governing ?
A.   See the end of section 4.1.1.

Q.   This case citation stuff is Greek to me.  What does it mean?
A.   See section 2.1.


     The United States has several different court systems -- at
least 55, if not more.  Each state (plus DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, and
the Virgin Islands) has its own system, and then there is the federal

1.1     The Federal Courts

     The federal court system has three basic levels: the
District Court, the Circuit Court, and the Supreme Court.

1.1.1   Federal District Courts

       The lowest tier of federal courts, where suits are first
brought and trials are held, is called the District Court level.
District Courts hear every type of federal case, whether civil or
criminal in nature.  Each district may have several judges, and
covers part or all of a state.

     There are two groups of district court judges, "regular service"
and "senior status."  Their powers are equal, and all enjoy life
tenure (under Article III of the U.S. Constitution); the only
difference is that senior judges, by virtue of having been on the
bench for at least ten years, may have lighter dockets (caseloads)
and may choose what types of cases they hear.  (Some senior judges
have used this prerogative to refuse trials or sentencing in drug
cases.)  There are roughly 630 regular-service District Court Judges,
a total set by statute.  28 USC sec. 133.  There is no limit on the
number of senior judges, other than the minimum age of 65
prerequisite to electing senior status.  28 USC sec. 371.

     District Court judges are often assisted by so-called Magistrate
Judges (aka magistrates).  Magistrates are not life-tenure judges;
rather, they are auxiliary officers (appointed under Article I of the
Constitution) who handle certain kinds of tasks delegated by District
Judges.  Magistrates may take "not guilty" pleas in felony criminal
arraignments; they also frequently handle discovery disputes,
misdemeanor trials, settlement negotiations, and hearings to calculate
damages.  Their orders are generally appealable to the District Judge
from whom the matter was referred.  28 USC sec. 636.

     In addition to the District Courts, there are a few trial-level
federal courts with limited subject-matter jurisdiction.  These
include the Court of Claims and the Court of International Trade.
There is also the system of federal Bankruptcy Courts, staffed by
judges who (like magistrates) are Article I (i.e., auxiliary) officers
appointed for a limited term of years.

1.1.2   Federal Appeals Courts

     Above the District Courts sit the Circuit Courts of Appeal.
There are 13 such courts (1st-11th Circuits, plus D.C. and the Federal
Circuit.)  With one exception, these courts hear appeals from District
Court decisions within their individual geographical regions.  For
instance, the Second Circuit presides over the four federal Districts
in New York state (EDNY, SDNY, WDNY, NDNY), and the Districts of
Connecticut and Vermont.

     (The exception is the confusingly named Federal Circuit, a
special court for patent appeals, which reviews District Court
decisions in this area from all over the country.  As for the other
Circuits, the frontispiece map in any recent volume of the **Federal
Supplement or **Federal Reporter will show which states are in each

     There are approximately 180 regular service Circuit Judges, 28
USC sec. 44, and in addition a varying number of senior Circuit
Judges.  The Circuits vary widely in size: the Ninth Circuit, covering
CA, AK, AZ, ID, MT, NV, OR, WA, HI, and Guam, has 28 regular slots,
while the First, covering MA, ME, NH, RI, and PR, has only 6.  Like
District Court Judges, Circuit Judges have life tenure.

     Almost all District Court orders are appealable to the Circuit
Court.  However, except for a few specific types of orders (such as
those granting or denying preliminary injunctions), most orders are
not immediately appealable.  Instead, parties must usually wait until
the entire case has been disposed of in the District Court, and then
raise all of their appeals at a single time.  See 28 USC secs. 1291 &

     Unlike District Court Judges, who preside alone over their cases,
Circuit Courts sit in essentially random panels of three judges for
each case.  In extremely rare circumstances, a majority of the judges
in the Circuit may sit "en banc" (also known as "in banc", or "in
bench") on a single appeal in order to clarify or review a
3-judge-panel decision.

     On occasion, the Chief Judge of a Circuit may invite a District
Court Judge (or a judge from another circuit) to sit temporarily on a
3-judge panel to hear one or more appeals.  This process is called
"sitting by designation."  When sitting by designation, a District
Court Judge may not review his/her own earlier decisions.

     Circuit Court decisions are binding on the district courts
within that circuit.  This fosters uniformity of law within each
circuit, although the circuits themselves may disagree strongly on
points of law.  (See the next section's discussion of "certiorari.")

1.1.3  The Supreme Court

     Atop the pyramid is the United States Supreme Court
(surprise!).  The Court hears appeals from the Circuits Courts,
from the highest courts of the respective states (only where a
federal issue is involved), or (very rarely) from a District
Court decision.  The Court also occasionally acts as a trial
court over certain constitutionally defined categories of cases,
such as lawsuits between states.

     In its appellate capacity, the Court is not obliged to entertain
any given case.  Rather, the Justices vote on whether or not to "grant
certiorari"; by tradition, a vote of 4 in favor is sufficient to
qualify the case for a hearing.  In the vast majority of cases, the
Court declines to hear the appeal ("denies cert.").  A denial of
certiorari has no precedential effect, and is not to be taken as a
reliable indicator of the Court's views on the merit of the appeal.
While this may seem harsh, it should be considered in light of the
fact that the Court decides only 100-150 cases each Term, out of the
6000 petitions for certiorari annually.

     The Supreme Court serves as the final authority of law in the
United States.  As a result, it is often called upon to resolve
conflicts between the Circuits, e.g., in interpreting federal
statutes.  Petitions for certiorari are more likely to be granted when
they involve such issues.  (For example, at the time this FAQ was
written, the Circuits were split over whether an organization must
have an "economic motive" before it can be successfully sued under
civil RICO.  The Second Circuit [in a case involving Croatian
terrorists] and the Seventh Circuit [in a case involving Operation
Rescue] had held that an economic motive is required; other circuits
disagreed.  In late January 1994, the Supreme Court resolved the split
in a unanimous opinion rejecting the Seventh Circuit's position.  See
_National Org. for Women v. Scheidler_, No. 92-780.)

     There are currently nine Justices, although that number varied
(substantially at times) prior to the 20th century.  Like District and
Circuit Court judges, Supreme Court Justices must be confirmed by
majority vote of the Senate before taking office.

     The highest ranking Justice is the Chief Justice of the United
States (*not* the "Chief Justice of the Supreme Court").  The Chief
Justice, who must be confirmed to that position even if s/he is
already an Associate Justice when nominated, has special
administrative and ceremonial functions.  In addition, s/he always has
the power to select who will write the opinion for the side on which
the Chief Justice votes in a given case.  When the Chief Justice is in
the majority, s/he may write the Opinion of the Court himself/herself,
or may assign it to another Justice on the same side.

     When a Justice retires, s/he may continue to serve actively as
a judge, albeit not at the Supreme Court.  Retired Justices are
often invited to sit on Circuit Court panels.  See 28 USC sec. 294.

     An excellent encyclopedia-style source of detailed information
about the Supreme Court -- its history, its members past and
present, and numerous important decisions -- is _The Oxford
Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States_.  Woodward and
Armstrong's _The Brethren_ offers an informative look into the
Court's internal dynamics.  And for a full narrative history of the
Court, see Bernard Schwartz's _A History of the Supreme Court_
(Oxford Univ.  Press 1993).

1.2  State Courts

     There are too many state court systems to describe them all here.
This section furnishes only an overview; for detailed information on
state court system structures, _Want's Federal-State Court Directory_
(Want Publishing Co.) includes a useful diagram of the system for each
state, territory, etc.

     Most state courts are designed in the same manner as the
federal system: a trial court, an intermediate appellate court,
and a court of final appeal (usually the "Supreme Court").  Some
smaller states omit the intermediate level.

     In addition, some of the older court systems use peculiar
naming conventions.  In Massachusetts, the highest court is the
Supreme Judicial Court.  New York's system is the most confusing by
far: the trial level court of general jurisdiction is the Supreme
Court; the first appellate court is the Supreme Court, Appellate
Division; and the highest court is the Court of Appeals.

     As in the federal system, the higher up you go in the system,
the more judges sit on the panel that hears the case.

     Also like the federal system, many states have special,
limited-jurisdiction trial courts.  These generally include
Family Court, Small Claims Court, Juvenile Court, and so on.


     Because there are so many courts churning out opinions all
across the U.S., there are correspondingly numerous published sets
("reporters") of the decisions of these various courts.  This
chapter describes briefly a) how to find a case if you have a cite
for it, b) the functions served by the respective reporters, and
c) the format in which printed cases appear.

2.1   Components of a Standard Cite

     The basic structure of a reference to a published decision is

    _Party1 v. Party2_, [volume] [reporter] [start page] [(court, year)]

A good example is _Hamaya v. McElroy_, 797 F. Supp. 186 (E.D.N.Y.
1992).  From this listing, you see that the last names of the primary
parties are Hamaya and McElroy.  The case can be found in volume 797
of the Federal Supplement (described below) beginning on page 186.
The opinion was rendered in 1992 by a District Court in the Eastern
District of New York (which covers Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island,
and Long Island).

     A citation may sometimes omit the parenthetical information
identifying the court of decision when that information can be
gleaned from the name of the reporter.  For instance, the famous
Supreme Court flag-burning decision is cited as _Texas v. Johnson_,
491 U.S. 397 (1989).  Since the **United States reporter (U.S.)
only includes Supreme Court decisions, it is not necessary to
specify the court again in the parenthetical.

     Sometimes a case will appear in more than one reporter; in
that event, information on the reporters is listed sequentially,
e.g., _Schmuck v. United States_, 489 U.S. 705, 109 S. Ct. 1443
(1989).  This case appears in volume 489 of U.S. (starting at page
705) and in volume 109 of the **Supreme Court reporter (S. Ct.),
starting at 1443.

     When reference is made to specific passage within a case, the
cite will include a "jump cite" or "pin[point] cite", so called
because it pinpoints the particular internal page to which the
reader can "jump" directly in lieu of reading the entire case.  For
example, the cite _Texas v. Johnson_, 491 U.S. 397, 399 (1989),
directs your attention to page 399.

     All of the sample cites above are in "long form": that is,
they give the names of both parties and provide a full citation.
When a source cites to a case repeatedly, however, it will often
use the long form only for the first reference; thereafter, it
will use the aptly named "short form," which has the general

      [volume] [reporter] at [page]

where  is optional.  The following are all typical
short form cites to the cases listed above:

    _Johnson_, 491 U.S. at 402.
    491 U.S. at 401.
    _Hamaya_, 797 F. Supp. at 190-91.

Note that because "Texas" is even less useful as an identifier
than "Johnson", one would generally find the latter in a short
form cite even though it is not the first name in the case title.
The same is generally true for frequent litigants like the
Commissioner of Internal Revenue, the Secretary of HHS, and (of
course) "United States".

     A case cite also often includes additional information
about which judge wrote the decision, whether the case was ever
affirmed or reversed on appeal (or cert. was denied in the Supreme
Court), and so on.

     A note on the order of names in the caption: In District Court
and Circuit Court opinions, the first name listed is *always* that of
the plaintiff.  This means that in a Circuit decision captioned
_Party1 v. Party2_, you cannot tell from the caption alone which party
appealed to the Circuit Court.  In contrast, the title of U.S. Supreme
Court decisions always tells you which party ("the petitioner")
brought the appeal: it's the first name listed, regardless of whether
that party was originally a plaintiff or a defendant in the trial
court.  (As a result, you can tell who won a case based solely on
whether the Supreme Court reversed or affirmed the lower court: an
affirmance means that the petitioner (listed first) lost, and vice
versa for reversal.)

     As you have probably gathered by this point, a case citation
often carries a large amount of information.  As a result, certain
standards have arisen for citing cases "correctly".  The most
comprehensive -- some would say "fascist" -- and widely used standard
is that laid out in _The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation_
(15th ed. 1991), developed collectively by members of the law reviews
at a few prestigious eastern law schools.  A competing (and far less
obsessive) standard created at the University of Chicago is _The
Maroonbook_.  (This FAQ adheres in large part to Bluebook style,
primarily because of the author's training.  Your life is too short
to devote to memorizing such things; if you need to cite a case,
focus instead on putting down enough information that *your* audience
could locate the case.)

2.2     Individual Case Reporters

     Case reporters can be divided into two basic types: "official"
reporters published by the federal government or the states, and
commercial reporters.  In the latter category, far and away the
dominant company is West Publishing, about whom you will read much
more below (see **Federal Practice Digest).

2.2.1    Federal Case Law Reporters

United States Reports (U.S.):
     The official reporter for decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The actual opinion of the Court is preceded by a "syllabus," written
by a Court employee, summarizing the issues decided.  The Syllabus is
not part of the opinion, and should be relied on only for a quick
overview of the case.  The Supreme Court once rebuked a litigant for
carelessly quoting a Syllabus rather than the opinion it inaccurately
summarized.  See _United States v. Detroit Lumber Co._, 200 U.S. 321,
337 (1906).

Supreme Court Reporter (S. Ct.):
     The West Publishing reporter for the Supreme Court.  In addition
to the Court's Opinion and the Syllabus, S. Ct. introduces each case
with a series of so-called "headnotes" distilling and categorizing
major legal conclusions in the opinion.  (These headnotes, which are
created by West and are not part of the Opinion, are discussed at
length in section 4.1.2 on using the **Federal Practice Digest.  All
West reporters, for federal or state courts at any level, attach
these headnotes to each case as a research tool.)

Lawyers Edition (L. Ed., L. Ed. 2d):
     An alternative collection of Supreme Court decisions from the
private publisher Lawyers Cooperative.  L. Ed. 2d is less widely
available in the United States than U.S. or S. Ct., although it
includes some useful features (such as summaries of the parties'
arguments) not found in the more common reporters.  Note also: like
many reporters, Lawyers Edition has entered its "second series" (L.
Ed. 2d), which simply means that at some point the publisher wanted to
restart the volume numbers again at 1.

United States Law Week (U.S.L.W.):
     A weekly looseleaf newsletter, published by the private Bureau of
National Affairs (BNA), reporting Supreme Court decisions (in addition
to summarizing important lower court decisions).  USLW is the most
up-to-date hardcopy form of Court decisions, and includes excellent
indexes for determining the status of a pending case (or locating a
recent opinion) on the basis of party names, subject matter, or docket
number.  (Note also that having the docket number will allow you to
obtain recent Supreme Court opinions via email.  See section 6 below.)

Federal Reporter (F., F.2d, F.3d):
     The West reporter covering decisions of the Circuit Courts of
Appeal.  Like all West reporters, it includes headnotes before each case
as a research tool.  There is no equivalent official reporter; this is
the only comprehensive printed source for Circuit Court opinions.

     Note also that West just began (in late 1993) the third series of
this reporter (F.3d), which will contain all new cases for the indefinite
future.  For the moment, though, F.2d is the repository of the bulk of
current Circuit-level law.

Federal Supplement (F. Supp.):
     The primary West reporter reprinting decisions of the District
Courts.  Unlike F.2d/F.3d, which includes almost all Circuit Court
decisions, F. Supp. represents only a fraction of the orders issued by
federal trial courts. (Unless the District Judge submits a copy of a
given decision to West -- usually done when s/he considers it
groundbreaking or useful as a guide to other courts -- it will not appear
in F. Supp.)

     Instead of appearing in F. Supp., a decision may appear in one of
two specialized reporters, Federal Rules Decisions (F.R.D.) or Bankruptcy
Reporter (B.R.), if it relates to bankruptcy law or certain federal rules
of court.  "Unpublished" decisions (i.e., those absent from the printed
reporters) can often be found on **Lexis and **Westlaw.  There is no
official reporter for District Court opinions.

2.2.2  State Case Law

     Nearly every state has an official reporter reprinting decisions
of that state's highest court.  This reporter invariably has as its
title the name of the state (sometimes abbreviated), e.g., "Mass.".
(The exceptions are states like Alaska and Wyoming, which no longer
publish official reporters.  The only printed resource for such cases
is the West regional reporter [see below].)

     In some states, the official reporter also includes the
decisions of lower appellate and trial courts.  Other states publish
one or more separate official reporters for these courts.  In New
York, for instance, the current official reporters are N.Y.2d
(highest court), A.D.2d (Appellate Division cases), and Misc. 2d
(trial court opinions).

     For two prominent states -- California and New York -- West also
publishes its own single-state reporter compiling the major decisions
of all courts in that state.  The current editions of these reporters
are the California Reporter, 2d series (Cal. Rptr. 2d) and New York
Supplement, 2d series (N.Y.S.2d).

     Because it is expensive and cumbersome for many smaller law
libraries to keep a full collection of official state reporters, West
publishes various "regional reporters," each collecting the combined
case law of a region of the U.S.  These are N.W.2d (Minnesota and
Wisconsin region), N.E.2d (New York, Illinois, Ohio & parts of New
England), A.2d (Atlantic coast), So.2d (South), S.E.2d (Southeast),
S.W.2d (Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee), and P.2d (Pacific).
For historical reasons, many of the categories are counterintuitive:
P.2d covers not only California, but recent additions to the Union
like Oklahoma and Kansas.

     In every instance, a case in a West regional reporter can also be
found in the corresponding official state reporter.  Indeed, for New
York and California, a single case may appear in no less than *three*
reporters (one official and one West reporter for that state, plus a
regional reporter).  An example: _Hymowitz v. Eli Lilly & Co._, 73
N.Y.2d 487, 539 N.E.2d 1069, 541 N.Y.S.2d 941 (1989).

     A full list of which reporters contain the decisions of various
state courts can be found in Table 1 of the Bluebook, starting at
page 169.

     Finally, note that what is true for the U.S. Supreme Court
syllabus (not valid as law) may not be true for certain state supreme
courts.  In Ohio, for example, the Supreme Court itself writes the
syllabus, which is part of the official opinion (and binding as law).


3.1   Statutory Citation

     The basic structure of a federal statutory citation is

        [volume] U.S.C. sec. [number]

"U.S.C." is United States Code, the official government codification
of all U.S. statutes.  U.S.C. is divided into roughly 50 different
categories ("titles"), each with a name and number; Title 8, for
example, covers immigration law.  This title number is used as the
[volume] marker at the start of a cite.  The [number] field is simply
the section number of the referenced statute.  For instance, 28 U.S.C.
sec. 2254 is the federal statute permitting state prisoners to file
habeas corpus petitions in federal court.

     (This FAQ uses the notation "sec." in place of the formal
section symbol [a doubled S].  Other ASCII-limited sources, such as
**Westlaw and **Lexis, may use "$", "@", or even "|" instead.)

     Some of the more important titles of U.S.C. are Title 11
(bankruptcy), Title 18 (criminal laws), Title 26 (Internal Revenue
Code), Title 28 (Judicial procedure), and Title 42 (Public Health and

     (You may occasionally hear people refer to certain laws as
"Title so-and-so", such as Title IX (barring sex discrimination in
education), Title III (regulating wiretaps), and Title VII (barring
race/sex-based employment discrimination).  These are not titles of
U.S.C.; rather, they refer to specific portions of particular Acts of
Congress.  Title III, for instance, is the third major section in the
Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.)

     Relatively few people use U.S.C. itself, which collects statutory
revisions in cumbersome separate volumes.  Instead, most researchers
use **United States Code Annotated (or **United States Code Service),
two private publications which include not only the statutes but also
useful summaries of relevant court decisions.  U.S.C.A. and U.S.C.S.
are discussed at greater length below, in section 4.1.1.

     State laws are not organized in a uniform manner.  For example,
in Massachusetts, the laws are divided into "chapters": Massachusetts
General Law ch. 89, sec. 11 penalizes motorist failure to yield to
crosswalk pedestrians.  In New York, the major divisions have names
but not numbers, e.g., NY Penal Law sec. 245.01 (indecent exposure).
Each state publishes an annotated version of its statutes similar to

    Note also that many smaller units of government -- counties,
parishes, cities, towns -- also have their own statutes, sometimes
called "ordinances".  Publication formats vary widely.

3.2   Regulatory Citations

     In addition to the official legislation of Congress, federal law
includes regulations created by various federal agencies.  Prior to
taking effect, a regulation must be printed in the Federal Register.
Upon being finally adopted, a regulation is codified in the Code of
Federal Regulations (C.F.R., not to be confused with the Council on
Foreign Relations).

     Similar to statutes and cases, a citation to a federal regulation
has the basic form

        [volume] C.F.R. sec. [number]

Knowing the cite for the section you need is essential, as the C.F.R.
index is practically worthless.  Since most regulations are
promulgated pursuant to an explicit statutory grant of authority, one
of the best methods for locating regulations on a specific subject is
to consult **U.S.C.A.  Once you locate the relevant statute, look in
the text which follows for cross-references under the heading "Code of
Federal Regulations".

[end of part 1]