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Legal Research: Federal: Court Cases

Help with common legal research questions.

Find by Topic, Party Names, or Citation

For topic searches, enter a few keywords in the search box at the top of the page.

If you have a citation or party names, enter as much as you know. For example:

Roe v. Wade

870 F.Supp.2d 1278

Westlaw is forgiving about the form of the citation; anything relatively close will usually produce the desired result

Find Cases relevant to a Statute

  • Look up your statute (code section) as described under the Laws tab of this guide.
  • View the full text of the statute.
  • Look in the sidebar for a section titled “Notes of Decisions.” This will list court cases in which that statute was significant.
  • Click on the name of a case to read it.

CAUTION: Not every code section has “Notes of Decisions”! This can be because the code section is fairly new, or because it simply has not been the significant in any given court case.

Checking Citation History (a.k.a. Shephardizing) in Westlaw

The weight and influence of a particular decision is determined by its subsequent history. For example, if a decision was later overruled by a higher court, it lacks value as legal precedent.

Shepard's citation indexes or "citators" track the history of decisions; hence the term "Shephardizing" a case to check its value. 

WestlawNext uses its own citator service, known as KeyCite, to accomplish the same thing.

  1. Display the full text of the decision that interests you.
  2. Look at the upper left corner for the KeyCite icon. (Either a red or yellow flag, depending upon the case's subsequent treatment. A yellow flag indicates a caution, a red flag indicates probable negative treatment.)
  3. Click the icon to view that treatment.

In Westlaw, you may also want to look at the case's History tab and Citing References tab. 

More Resources

Why Can't I Find It?

Not every court case results in a public, published opinion explaining the court's reasoning. For example, civil and criminal trials at the city or county level normally do not result in published opinions, even if they are high-profile cases. News media reports of these trials are often the only information readily available to the public.

Courts that publish opinions include state Supreme Courts and Courts of Appeals, federal District Courts, the federal Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Some specialty courts, such as tax courts and military courts, may also publish decisions.

Different types of courts have jurisdiction over different types of cases. For example, the U.S Supreme Court hears a limited number of cases, most of which involve Constitutional issues or important questions of federal law.

Researchers looking through the history of complex litigation will often find decisions of the court that were published, but have no supporting documentation, generally because they involved rulings on procedural or technical matters. One of the most common of these at the Supreme Court level is abbreviated "Cert. Denied," meaning that the petition for a writ of certoriari was denied. In other words, the court declined to review the case in question.