Research Notes #1: HOW TO FIND A CASE (COURT OPINION) IN THE LAW LIBRARY
by David Batista, Public Services Coordinator,
Rutgers-Camden School of Law Library
Almost every book in this library was written to be read and understood only by other attorneys, not by non-attorneys (i.e. you). The terminology (sometimes called legalese) is often difficult to understand. If you are unfamiliar with a term do not hesitate to look up the word in a legal dictionary. Blacks Law Dictionary is the best source for definitions and abbreviations (found in the back of Blacks). A copy of this book is always available at the reference desk.
First, some general statements about court decisions. When judges decide cases, they very often do not write opinions explaining their decisions. Even when a judicial opinion is written, only a small percentage of these are published in a case reporter. The vast majority are unavailable anywhere except from the clerk of the courts office where the case was heard. So, don't be surprised if you cannot find anything about a particular court case. This is especially true if you lack a complete citation.
Where you begin to look for a written court opinion will depend on what information you have about the case. If you have a typical complete legal citation for a reported case you will have: 1.) the parties names; 2.) the volume; 3.) the reporter abbreviation; 4.) the page on which the opinion begins; 5.) the court/jurisdiction; and 6.) the date/year. This will look something like: Willis v. Thomas, 600 P.2d 1079 (Alaska 1979). Many citations will contain more information.
With the volume, reporter, and page number all you need to do is physically locate the appropriate reporter set in the library to find the opinion. Maps and general direction are available at either the Circulation/Reserve or Reference Desks.
If you have only the parties names (either one or both) you should look in the General and Decennial Digests in the table of cases. These digests cover the reported cases for all fifty states and the federal court system. Start with the most recent volumes of the General Digests and look in the Table of Cases (located in the back of each volume). Tables of Cases are the alphabetical listing of all cases covered by that digest. Besides the citations, the entries will also include descriptive subject headings used by that digest to classify each case. [Remember to look under both parties' names since on appeal the parties may switch position.] When you have reached the Decennial Digests (and still have not found the citation) the table of cases you must check are located in the back of the last volume of each numbered set.
If you have the parties names and the date of the decision searching the General and Decennial Digests will take much less time since you can limit your search to only those volumes covering that time period.
If you have the parties names and the court/jurisdiction you can limit your search to a state, regional (eg. Southern Digest), or jurisdictional (e.g. West's Federal Practice Digest) digest. [Remember, when searching a digest, always check the pocket part that will be tucked into the back cover of each volume.]
Once you have a citation you need to locate the reporter series in order to find the case. The locations of the reporters in the Law Library are: federal case reporters are shelved on the third floor; regional reporters are shelved on the third floor just East of the federal case reporters; New Jersey case opinions are located on the third floor; official state court reports are shelved on the third floor in alphabetical order.
If you don't have the parties names, the basic citation, the court/jurisdiction or the date of the decision, you need to do a subject search for the case or some basic research into the subject area. It might help you to read the Section Law Library Guide on writing an undergraduate paper.