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Studying Case Law in Law Schools

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Our system of common law is heavily dependent on previously decided cases. Therefore, most of the reading in your law school courses, especially during the first year, will center on the judicial opinions in your casebooks. In addition to these opinions, you will want to read the opinions in other cases to learn more about the subjects you are studying and to perform legal re-search. To find these cases in the law library, you will use a "case citation." Citations guide you to the exact location of an individual case among the hundreds of thousands that have been published.

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Judicial decisions are published in books called "reporters." Many reporters also include a "syllabus" and "head-note" at the beginning of each case, which summarize the decision and the statements of law in the opinion, respectively. Reporters also include an index to the opinions published in that volume and may include a subject index.

Reporters are published at the federal, state, and regional levels. Decisions of the federal courts are published in several different series of reporters, each of which includes opinions for a particular court level. The Federal Supplement (F.Supp.) contains decisions of the federal district courts. Decisions of the federal courts of appeal are published in the Federal Reporter (F., F.2d, or F.3d). Decisions of the United States Supreme Court are published in three different reporters, each of which contains all the United States Supreme Court decisions: United States Reports (U.S.), United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers' Edition (L.Ed, or L.Ed.2d), and Supreme Court Reporter (S.Ct.). The Supreme Court reporter that you use is a matter of personal preference, although the preferred citation is to United States Reports. In fact, many courts require that Supreme Court case citations be to United States Reports because it is published by the federal government (the "official" reporter). In addition to these reporters, reporters are published for some of the specialized federal courts, such as the Reports of the United States Tax Court (T.C.) and the Bankruptcy Reporter (B.R.).

At the state level, cases often are published in more than one series of reporters. Most states publish their own reporters, which include only decisions by that state's courts. In some states, decisions by the intermediate appellate court and by the highest appellate court are published in the same reporter. In other states, they are published in separate reporters. For example, Massachusetts publishes both Massachusetts Appeals Court Re-ports, which includes decisions of the Massachusetts Court of Appeals, and Massachusetts Reports, which includes decisions of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Some states also publish reporters for more specialized courts. Most states do not publish trial court opinions because they are so numerous and have limited precedential value.

Some states publish their own official case reporters. In many states, however, cases are published only in the "unofficial" West National Reporter System. This System divides the United States into seven geographic regions and publishes a separate reporter series for each: Atlantic (A. or A.2d), North Eastern (N.E. or N.E.2d), North Western (N.W. or N.W.2d), Pacific (P. or P.2d), South Eastern (S.E. or S.E.2d), South Western (S.W. or S.W.2d), and Southern (So. or Sa2d). For example, the Southern Reporter includes state court decisions from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

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Citations (or "cites") to the reporters always take the same form. For example, the citation to the published opinion in the case Garratt v. Dailey is: Garratt v. Dailey, 46 Wash.2d 197, 279 P.2d 1091 (1955). Two separate citations are given ("parallel citations") because this opinion is published in two different reporters-the State of Washington re-porter and the Pacific regional reporter. Between the two numbers in each citation is the abbreviation for the reporter system in which the case is published. Garratt v. Dailey is found in the Washington Reports, Second Series (Wash.2d) and in the Pacific Reporter, Second Series (P.2d). The "2d" shows that when the number of volumes in the series became too large, the publisher began numbering the new volumes from number 1 again. As you can see, each of the reporter systems in which Garratt v. Dailey is published was in its second series. Once you have located the appropriate reporter series in your library, the number preceding the reporter abbreviation in the cite is the volume in which the opinion is published, and the number following the reporter abbreviation is the page number. Thus, Garratt v. Dailey begins on page 197 of volume 46 of Washington Reports 2d and on page 1091 of volume 279 of Pacific Reporter 2d. The number in parentheses at the end of the cite is the year in which the case was decided.

An accurate citation is the only easy way to locate a case in the thousands of reporter volumes. The rules for properly citing cases, statutes, and other materials are quite detailed. Fortunately, they are contained into A Uniform System of Citation, known to lawyers and law students as The Bluebook. If you have not done so already, you should purchase this inexpensive book and keep it within easy reach.

Obviously, judicial decisions cannot be published immediately in the bound reporters. Instead, courts in most states first disseminate decisions to subscribers and to certain government document depositories in the form of individual "slip opinions…" After a sufficient number of slip opinions has accumulated, they are published together in volumes called "advance sheets." The advance sheets are organized in the same manner as the reporters but are published in paperback form. When a sufficient number of advance sheets have accumulated, they are published as the next volume of the hardbound reporter series.

The United States Law Week, which is published by The Bureau of National Affairs in Washington, D.C., is a good source for recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Law Week is published weekly and prints U.S. Supreme Court decisions in their entirety, as well as excerpts from cases of general interest from other federal and state courts. Law Week generally is second only to slip opinions in the speed with which it publishes opinions. It also reports on the status of cases on the U.S. Supreme Court's docket, judicial and executive nominations and confirmations, and other items of national interest. Your school's law library should have a Law Week subscription.

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