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Case Law and Citators


The United States is a common law country and the case opinions from the many levels of courts form the basis for our legal system.  Therefore, how does one research this crucial information?  This guide will discuss the language associated with case law research and the resources available for the various courts and jurisdictions in the U.S.   But once you have found a case opinion on point, you must determine if it is still good law.  The guide will also discuss the citators that assist with this finishing touch for your case law research.

What are Reporters?

A reporter is a chronological publication of case opinions from a given court, jurisdiction or region.  Subsequent pages in this guide will describe the various reporters available.  

In this digital age, the concept of the reporter may seem antiquated.  However, for many years, the print reporter was the method for publishing court opinions.  Even with most legal research conducted online, the reporter structure is still maintained and print reporters do still exist.  However, many libraries and law firms are cutting print subscriptions for both cost and space reasons.

There are two types of reporters:  official and unofficial.  An official reporter is the primary reporter for the court and is often a government publication. Unofficial reporters are generally those reporters published by commercial vendors.  Also, keep in mind that not all court opinions are published.  In fact, the vast majority of court opinions are unpublished in reporters.

What are Digests?

If reporters are chronological listings of court opinions, then how do you search for a case on a given subject?  This is where a digest comes into the discussion.  Digests are essentially subject indexes for court opinions, with digests available for courts, jurisdictions and regions.  

West has traditionally been the primary publisher of digests and has created the West Digest System.  For every case in a reporter, West has created headnotes for every issue in the case and assigned corresponding topic and key numbers.  These topics and key numbers allow a researcher to find one case on point and then, using the topics and key numbers, search for other cases with similar issues.  

The digest is, like the reporter, a vestige from the print age of legal research.  But the concepts such as headnotes, topics and key numbers, introduced in the digests are still very important research tools when using an online database.  In case you are in a situation to need to do research using a print digest, the following are a few of the major digests: 

  • U.S. Supreme Court Digest
  • U.S. Supreme Court Lawyers Edition Digest
  • Federal Digest
  • Regional Digests (Atlantic, North Western, Pacific, South Eastern)
  • Specialized digest, such as West's Bankruptcy Digest
  • Decennial Digests

Options for Finding Court Opinions

Besides print digests, there are numerous other methods to conduct case law research. Westlaw, Lexis and Bloomberg Law all provide full text searching of court opinions. Additionally, other resources that are excellent for finding relevant cases include:

  • Annotated Codes, such as United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.), United States Code Service (U.S.C.S.) and the state equivalents.
  • Citators, such as Shepard's, KeyCite or BCite.
  • Secondary Sources including treatises and law review articles.
  • Current Awareness sources, such as legal newspapers and blogs
  • American Law Reports
  • Legal Encyclopedias (American Jurisprudence, Corpus Juris Secundum and the various state specific versions)
  • Restatements


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