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Legal Research: California: Court Cases

Help with common legal research questions.

Find by Cases by Topic or Parties

To find cases by topic, enter keywords in the search box, for example:

medical marijuana

To find cases by party names or by citation, enter as much information as you know, for example:

City of Claremont v. Kruse

177 Cal.App.4th 1153

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.
  • Look for a section titled "Notes of Decisions." (In a sidebar, or at the end of the statute.) This will list court cases in which that statute received significant discussion or clarification.
  • 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 significant in any given court case.

Checking Citation History (a.k.a. Shepardizing) 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 "Shepardizing" 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 publicly available opinion explaining the court's ruling and reasoning. This includes civil and criminal trials at the local level (in California, the "Superior Courts"), even if they are high-profile cases. News media reports of these trials are often the only information readily available to the public.

For more about how to find local court records, see Access to Electronic Court Case Records from the California Courts web site, as well as How to look up a court case from the California Courts' Self Help site. Typically, members of othe public must visit the courthouse to view records, even if they are available electronically. 

Courts that release 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 release decisions.

Note that state court of appeals opinions may be labeled "published" or "unpublished." In this context, published means that the opinion has precedential value (that is, it can be cited as support in later cases), while unpublished means that it has no precedential value.

Different types of courts have jurisdiction over different types of cases. For example, the California Supreme Court has discretion to review decisions of the Court of Appeals in order to settle important questions of law and to resolve conflicts among the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court also must review the appeal in any case in which a trial court has imposed a death sentence. 

Researchers looking through the history of complex litigation will often find decisions of the court that were issued but have no supporting documentation, generally because they involved rulings on technical or procedural matters.