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Urban Studies Planning Law: Judicial Branch (case law)


Case Law and Its Authority

Case law is the collection of reported cases that form the body of law within a given jurisdiction.  It is based upon judicial opinions by various courts, which may set future precedent.

Courts in the United States adhere to stare decisis, which generally means that courts respect and adhere to the precedent of previous decisions.  However, a court does not have to stand by a decision that is not binding precedent.  Generally courts will follow the decisions of higher courts in their jurisdiction.  Therefore the effect of a court's decision on other courts will depend both on the level of the court and its jurisdiction.  A decision by the United States Supreme Court is binding precedent in all courts. 

A decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit would not be binding on the United States Supreme Court or courts from another circuit.  However, it would be binding in all lower courts of the 11th Circuit.

Publication of Case Law

Not all case law is published.  Generally, appellate court decisions that will be used as future precedent are published (reported) in sources (case reporters) specific to that court.  Attorneys use published case law as a means to interpret the law.  For these reasons, few trial court decisions are published in case reporters.

Much of this text is reused from the Georgia State University Law Library. Used with permission.

The Judicial Process

A case starts at the trial court level, which could either be a trial by judge or trial by jury.  Generally, evidence and witnesses are presented at the trial court level.

An appellate court will hear appeals from parties seeking to change the result of the case heard at the trial court.  An appellate court will not answer questions of fact, meaning they will not review the evidence in a case.  Instead, the appellate court rules on questions of law, which means it considers legal issues.  

Because of the parallel system between state courts and federal courts, researching case law can be difficult and complex.  A researcher will often need to determine if their issue is one that is inherently federal or state.  Even then, some issues can overlap each other and require a state and federal analysis. 


Reused from the Georgia State University Law Library. Used with permission.

Federal Court System

The federal court system is made up of the following courts, excluding certain specialized courts: 

Court Description
The Supreme Court of the United States Most of the cases heard are appeals from lower courts and cases from state supreme courts which involve a point of federal law. The court has discretion to decide which cases it will consider.
The United States Court of Appeals  Made up of appellate courts which deal with appeals from the district courts in their circuit.  There are 12 circuit court of appeals, plus 1 federal circuit court of appeals, which handles specialized cases such as patents and international trade. A map of the Federal Court System is here
United States District Courts Trial courts which deal with violations of federal criminal law, disputes regarding federal laws or treaties, and some cases involving residents of different states.


Finding a Case

A researcher will not always have a case citation when they begin their research.  Often times a researcher will have an issue or topic that are looking for case law on.  Without a case citation, a researcher would have a daunting challenge trying to go straight to a case reporter and locate a case on their topic.  However, there are several avenues that a researcher can go down if they do not have a citation for a case.

Here are a few suggestions when looking for case law without a citation:

  1. Annotated Codes (statutes): annotated codes such as the United States Code Service (Nexis Uni) provide researchers with citations to other areas of law connected to that statute. This often includes relevant case law.
  2. Legal Encylopedias: cover a wide range of topics that are arranged alphabetically.  Many of the topics include footnotes with citations to relevant case law.     
  3. Nexis Uni: can search for cases by party name, case citation, or by keyword searches. 

Finding a Case: Nexis Uni


Methods for Searching Nexis Uni

  1. By Citation: If a researcher knows their citation already, then they can plug that into Nexis Uni and it will retrieve the case. Citations should be provided exactly as they written.  Ex.  The citation for Roe v. Wade is 410 U.S. 113.
  2. By Parties: If a researcher knows the parties to a case but not the citation, then they can enter in those party names and retrieve cases with those names.  This could lead to more than one results, especially if the party names are common such as "United States v. Smith" or "State v. Williams."  In those instances, Nexis Uni will warn a user tha the results are a high number and ask if they researcher plans to proceed.  However, if the researcher does continue with the search, they will be provided with a list of courts on the left and how many of the retrieved cases are from that court.  This allows the researcher to narrow down the list to only a few sources.  Therefore, a researcher should not only know the party names, but also have a good idea of the court or state from which the case originated and, if at all possible, the year of the decision.
  3. By Topic:  A researcher can also retrieve cases by searching for a particular topic.  Similar to searching by parties, results for searching by topic will provide researchers with a breakdown on the left side of the courts where the cases were retrieved so that researchers can narrow down their search to a specific court and state.
  4. Keyword Search/Cases:  Doing a keyword search under cases allows for users to enter keywords, exclude words from searches, specify dates, as well as select the jurisdiction.
  5. Shepardizing: Nexis Uni incorporates Shepard's Legal Citations into the database. This can be used to see if a case that has/had  precedence has been overturned, reaffirmed, or questioned. Because Shepardizing connects you to other cases that have cited the case you are looking at, you can use the citations to identify case law addressing similar legal topics.


Additional Places to Access Federal Case Law

Case Reporters


Cases are published in chronological order in books called reporters.  Below is a list of the reporters for the three levels of federal courts:

Court Reporter Citation
U.S. Supreme Court

United States Reports (official)


Supreme Court Reporter (West)


United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyer's Edition (Lexis)



S. Ct.


L. Ed. or
L. Ed. 2

U.S. Court of Appeals Federal Reporter F., F.2d, or F.3d
U.S. District Courts Federal Supplement F. Supp. or
F. Supp. 2d


In addition to these designations, reporters are also classified as official or unofficial reporters.  An official reporter simply means that it is the publication designated by statute or court order as official.  Generally it will contain only the text of the opinion.  A case published in an unofficial reporter will include the same text of the same case from the official reporter, but it will also include headnotes, topics, key numbers, and other aids to assist researchers.

Parallel Citations

As mentioned above, a case can be published in an official reporter and an unofficial reporter.  For that reason, a single case may have 2 or more citations.  When a case has more than one citation, the subsequent citations are known as parallel citations.  A classic example of this is Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 121 S. Ct. 525, 148 L. Ed. 2d 388 (2000).

As one can see, not only is Bush v. Gore cited in the official reporter (United States Reports), but also in two unofficial reporters (Supreme Court Reporter and Lawyer's Edition

Reading a Case Citation

Case citations allow a researcher to find a case quickly and easily.  Similiar to statutory citations, all case citations follow the same structured format.  This enables researchers to clearly identify the parts of a citation and where to locate the case.

Here is a breakdown of the citation for Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113 1973
Case Name/Party Names Reporter Volume Reporter Abbreviation First Page of Case Date of Decision

From this, a researcher can determine that the case Roe v. Wade is located in United States Reports, Volume 410, Page 113.


Parallel Citations

The process is the same with parallel citations.  So if we use the previous example of Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 121 S. Ct. 525, 148 L. Ed. 2d 388 (2000), the breakdown would look something like this:

Bush v. Gore 531 U.S. 98 121 S. Ct. 525 148 L. Ed. 2d 388 2000
Case Name/Party Names United States Reports, Volume 531, Page 98 Supreme Court Reporter, Volume 121, Page 525 Lawyer's Edition, Volume 148, Page 388 Date of Decision

Thus, a researcher would be able to either of these 3 reporters and find the same case using that reporter's volume and page numbers.  


Pinpoint Cite

A researcher may also come across a citation that includes an additional number after the page number.  This additional number, numbers or range of numbers are called pinpoint cites.  Cases and articles will often use these to refer researchers to exactly where the thought arose from.  Here is an example using Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000).

Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 100 (2000).  Citing specifically to page 100 of Volume 531 of the United States Reports.
Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 100, 104 (2000). Citing specifically to pages 100 and 104 of Volume 531 of the United States Reports.
Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 100-102 (2000). Citing specifically to pages 100 through 102 of Volume 531 of the United States Reports.


Federal Reporter Citation

The Federal Reporter contains cases from US Court of Appeals. As a result citations may have an extra element in the citation to identify the court that rendered the decision. 

Here is an example using United States v. MacDonald, 531 F.2d 196 (4th Cir. 1976).

United States v. MacDonald 531 F.2d 196 4th Cir. 1976
Name of Case/Party Names Volume Number Reporter Abbreviation First page of case Deciding Court Date of decision

In this case, the deciding court is 4th Cir. which means United States Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit. 

Court Abbreviation
First Circuit 1st Cir.
Second Circuit 2d Cir.
Third Circuit 3d Cir.
Fourth Circuit 4th Cir.
Fifth Circuit 5th Cir.
Sixth Circuit 6th Cir.
Seventh Circuit 7th Cir.
Eight Circuit 8th Cir.
Ninth Circuit 9th Cir.
Tenth Circuit 10th Cir.
Eleventh Circuit 11th Cir.
D.C. Circuit D.C. Cir.
Federal Circuit Fed. Cir.


Federal Supplement Citation

The Federal Supplement includes select cases from US District Courts. These may also include an extra element in the citation, so that a researcher can determine which court rendered the decision.  

Here is an example using Jenkins v. Byrd, 103 F. Supp. 2d 1350 (S.D. Ga. 2000).

Jenkins v. Byrd 103 F. Supp. 2d 1350 S.D. Ga. 2000
Name of Case/Party Names Volume Number Reporter Abbreviation First page of case Deciding Court Date of decision

In this case, the deciding court was the S.D. Ga, which means the United States District Court,Southern District of Georgia.

Much of this text is reused from the Georgia State University Law Library. Used with permission.

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