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Finding U.S. case law and secondary legal literature

If you need help, please contact Yolanda Koscielski, Liaison Librarian for Criminology, Psychology & Philosophy at 778.782.3315 or ysk6@sfu.ca or Ask a librarian.

The American judicial system - a brief overview

The system of law in the United States shares a similar common law background with Canada. Both countries use case law and legislation as its primary sources of the law, and both countries have a constitution which outlines the organization of the law in relation to federal and state/provincial government. While Canada obviously does not follow US case law decisions, in some emerging areas, (e.g., copyright law), and areas of shared interest (e.g., securities law), US law may be researched to inform Canadian courts

Unlike Canada, where criminal law is a matter of (mostly) federal jurisdiction under the Criminal Code, in the United States, criminal law is primarily a matter of state jurisdiction, with a few exceptions, such as organized crime.

The United States has two main court systems: the Federal Court System and the State Court System: 

 

  US Federal Court System US State Court System
Subject Matter Covered
  • Federal law matters
  • Constitutional law (judicial reviews, also includes constitutional validity of state laws)
  • Federal court procedure (all levels)
  • Inter-state Matters (aka the "diversity jurisdiction", when parties are from different states & cases have a $75,000 minimum monetary value)
  • Small range of criminal matters covered by federal law, e.g., organized crime
  • Cases where a party is the Federal Government
  • Wide range of subject matters, also including constitutional law
  • Excludes a few legal areas that can only be heard in Federal Courts (e.g., bankruptcy cases)
Number of Levels 3 levels of court  Varies by state, but usually 3 levels of court
Highest Level of Court U.S. Supreme Court State Supreme Court
Next Highest Level of Court Circuit Courts of Appeal (13 circuits total; 12 circuits are geographically-based, the 13th circuit is subject-matter based) Court of Appeal
Lowest Levels of Court Trial Level (aka District Courts) (94 districts total)  

 

Note: the United States has two Supreme Courts - one for federal matters, one for state matters. (In Canada, there is only one Supreme Court of Canada which has legal jurisdiction over both federal and provincial matters).

The decisions of the highest levels of court (e.g., the U.S. Supreme Court) in each system are binding over lower level of courts in that category (e.g., Federal Courts).

The National Centre for State Courts links to US state court websites and provides snapshots of each state's court structure, for instance, Texas. There is also a list of state court websites.

U.S. legislation

 

Legislation overview: In the U.S., some powers are assigned to the Federal Government, some to the State Government, and other powers are shared. When researching legislation, keep in mind possible jurisdiction of the legislation.

There are three branches of the US Federal Government:

  1. legislative,
  2. judicial and
  3. executive.

The legislative assembly, called Congress, is bicameral, consisting of both a House of Representatives and Senate. Congress sessions are numbered.

How a Bill Becomes a Law outlines in simple terms the steps involved in creating US law.

 

State law

Use these state-specific web pages as a starting point for researching individual state laws:

Federal law

Congress.gov - contains the Congressional Record (the text of the debates of Congress) from 1989-forward, and the full text of US bills by bill number or title. Once a bill has been approved by the President, it becomes a Public Law, and is assigned an accompanying Public Law citation.

Sample Public Law Citation:  P.L. 112 - 18

P.L. = Public Law--the bill has been signed off by the president

112 = session of Congress

18 = the bill number, sequentially assigned

 

Govinfo - contains enacted US federal legislation (aka Public Laws) from 1995-present. Govinfo provides the official online version of Federal Laws.

United States Statutes at Large (via HeinOnline) [also on microfilm from 1776-1980]  - the official print version of enacted federal laws, published annually. Access the digitized official version of the US Statutes at Large online through HeinOnline --> "U.S. Statutes at Large". Once printed in the Statutes at Large, these public laws will have another citation assigned to them in addition to their original Public Law citations, although both Public Law and Statutes at Large citations will usually be listed alongside each other. 

Sample United States Statutes at Large Citation: 123 Stat. 19

123 = volume number of published Statute 

Stat. = official enacted law, printed in the US Statutes at Large

19 = page number of the Statute within the volume

 

United States Code - contains the official, enacted US Federal laws, but reassembled and organized by subject matter, in a consolidation that happens every six years (although online versions are updated more regularly). Also available via HeinOnline (1925-2012)--> Select "U.S. Code" and govinfo, and via Nexis Uni.

Sample US Code Citation: 7 U.S.C. § 2708(b) (2006)

7 = the US Code title number from the multi-title series

U.S.C. = United States Code

§ 2708(b) = section and sub-section number

2006 = the latest version of the Code consulted

In this example, title 7 is Agriculture, section 2708 is Referendum Among Egg Producers, and sub-section b is Request by egg board for referendum. This code citation is found in the 2006 print edition of the Code. 

 

TOPN: Table of Bills by Popular Name - Locate US Federal Legislation by its popular title (e.g., Haida Land Exchange Act), rather than its official citation. Use TOPN to discover a law's accompanying Public Law, Statutes at Large, and US Code citations (as applicable).

 

Note on Legislation Citation: When researching US legislation by citation you may be working from any combination of Public Law number, US Statutes at Large number, US Code number, or popular name of the legislation.

In general, a piece of legislation can have all four naming/citing conventions associated with it; each suggests a corresponding place to research.

 

Federal regulations

Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) Federal regulations organized by subject matter, similar to the United States Code. Accessible through several sources:

  • Govinfo The official source for federal regulations
  • HeinOnline (1938 - present) --> select "Code of Federal Regulations"
  • Cornell LII A non-profit US law portal.

US case law

Search case law databases directly if you know the specific cases you are looking for. If you are searching by topic -- e.g., recent lawsuits against U.S. fast food corporations -- it is highly recommended you begin your research with secondary legal literature.

Before searching for a specific case, it is helpful to know: 

  • What system(s) of court was the case tried in - State or Federal ?
  • What level(s) of court was the case tried in - Trial/District, Appeal/Circuit, or Supreme (state or federal)?
  • Who are the parties to the legal action?
  • In what year was the case heard?

Google Scholar is robust for US case law. From the advanced case law search screen, limit your search to a particular court. Google Scholar provides full text searching of all levels of both US court systems (Federal & State).

Nexis Uni 

  1. Under "Guided Search", select "cases" 
  2. Select either federal or state cases 
  3. One option is to search by the case name (e.g., Roe v Wade), or by under citation (e.g., 163 U.S. 537). 

OR

  1. Advanced search --> Select a specific content type --> Case Law

HeinOnline
Contains Federal Supreme Court Case Law from the official Supreme Court reporter, U.S. Reports, with coverage from 1754-2013. 

  1. Select U.S. Supreme Court Library  --> Official Reports --> U.S. Reports --> browse by date
  2. For most recent cases, view the United States Report Slip Opinions linked from the above page, the U.S. Supreme Court website, or Cornell LII

The Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation (Canadian legal citation standard) may be used for guidance in citing US case law, or you may use the American Bluebook which is the official guide to legal citation in the United States. Cornell LII provides an abbreviated guide to the Bluebook.

Secondary U.S. legal literature

Definitions:
 
Secondary legal literature is writing about legal cases and issues.
 
Primary legal literature is the source of the law itself (e.g., case law and legislation).
 
Secondary legal literature points you to key cases on a topic, provides essential legal analysis, and may situate important case law in its legal context. Typical sources include legal treatises, legal encyclopedias, academic journal articles, legal trade articles, law reports, and even newspaper articles. Each have varying degrees of authority in court.

 

Academic and non-academic articles

Google Scholar indexes a large number of US legal journals - academic and trade. Search Google through the SFU Library to maximize your free access to journals.

Nexi Uni - Contains academic law journals, legal dictionaries, and United States and other international newspapers

  • Law journals
    • Advanced search --> Select a specific content type --> Law reviews and journals 
      • Alternatively, select Treatises, Expert Analysis, etc.for other secondary legal content 
  • Newspapers
    • Advanced search --> Select a specific content type --> News

HeinOnline  - Contains academic law journals ("more than 2,700 law and law-related periodicals")

  • Select Law Journal Library.

Note: some journal titles have limited access, such as a 3-year embargo.  If the full text is not available, search by journal title in the library catalogue to double-check all journals owned by SFU Library, or search by article title in Library Search - we might have it available through another source. If not, you can place a request for a free interlibrary loan.

News sources list the library's access to US and international news sources, including The New York Times and The Economist . Newspapers can point you to key legal cases for further research, or help fill in the details about the case, so you can run a better search. 

Books and treatises

Books can provide in-depth legal overviews and refer you to important case law. Use the search terms law + [your topic] to find books in the catalogue, for instance, a search for law US copyright, narrowed to books.

Alternatively, search the libraries of large US law schools, such as Harvard's Law Library's list of legal treatises, to find key books and then request to borrow these treatises for free (as available) through SFU's interlibrary loan. Treatises on legal topics are often considered an authoritative source in the US judicial system.

Encyclopedias and dictionaries

Cornell LII's Wex is a free, collaboratively-authored legal encyclopedia. Most articles point you to key statutes and cases on a topic. 

For US legal definitions, try the dictionaries Black's Law Dictionary, Cornell LII's WEX Legal Lexicon, or Nolo's free legal dictionary.

 

Court documents and transcripts

Court documents other than case law are notoriously difficult to obtain. This difficulty usually stems from court file privacy restrictions, archiving practices from the pre-internet time period, expensive transcription costs, and lack of availability: there may simply be no transcripts available in the court record. 

Online access to court documents, though, is improving over time. There are several main free and commercial sources for locating US court records.

Free:

RECAP via Court Listener. Provides free access to select court records originally listed on PACER.

Individual State Court Websites may provide free access to some court documents online or in-person.

Personal/media websites may also post high-interest court documents.

Commercial:

PACER: An official US government database."Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is an electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information from Federal Appellate, District and Bankruptcy courts, and from the U.S. Party/Case Index".

Additionally, a handful of US legal databases/database modules provide access to court documents: Bloomberg Law Dockets Search, Westlaw Edge and Lexis Advance. SFU Library does not subscribe to these resources.

More links to smaller-scale court documents websites, plus a full overview of finding court documents:

Duke Law - Court Records and Briefs

University of Wyoming Guide: Finding Court Documents

 

Additional resources

The U.S. Government Manual is an excellent starting point for a bird's eye view of the US government, containing:

  1. An authoritative version of the American Constitution (includes the Amendments/Bill of Rights),
  2. The Declaration of Independence,
  3. A current overview of all government departments and agencies, committees and boards, etc.

Current and historical versions are also available in print at the SFU library, and via the database, HeinOnline 

  • Select the catalog tab --> search by title, U.S. Government Manual

Cornell Legal Information Institute A non-profit portal for US legal research, containing a vast range of primary legal sources (e.g., law) and secondary sources (e.g., commentary). This is similar to Canada's CanLII.