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LIS 530 GLE: Legal Resources: Week 3: Court Mat'ls

Adapted from the LibGuide for LAW 627, the 1L course in legal research, this guide is intended for students enrolled in LIS 530 GLE, Legal Resources. It has been edited for course length as well as scope/audience.


Before class, you should:

  • watch the Structure of the Court System video
  • watch the Judicial Review video
  • watch the Judicial Decisions video
  • take the quiz below the videos
  • read the "Introduction to Case Law" and other boxes on this LibGuide

Introduction to Case Law: Reading & Accessing Judicial Opinions

Locating court opinions is one of the most basic and fundamental skills for a law librarian. 

This can be complicated, though, depending on what is known about the case(s) sought. Case law is not published in a structure that facilitates finding decisions by any means other than chronology (using the volume number and page of the reporter where it is printed). This means that finding appropriate cases requires skill in searching and using case law tools.

In addition, a point of law in a case can be affected by later decisions in other cases. Reading the original case will not give any indication of this effect. Lawyers must be able to find out the current status of a case: what happened to that case after the decision, and how has it been treated by later cases/courts? 

Free sources for cases and commentary


Citator. A citator tracks when a cases is refererenced in same other subsequent case opinions. With case law, later cases can weaken the holding of the original, so legal citators indicate the effect that later citation had on the original case. Any case you plan to rely on as precedent must be carefully updated using a legal citator.  The three main citators are:  Shepards on Lexis, KeyCite on Westlaw and Bcite on Bloomberglaw. 

Headnote. Headnotes are points of law in a case that have been abstracted and listed in sequential order at the beginning of a case by commercial editors. Headnotes are arranged by topic with headnotes from other cases in a digest. 

Opinion. One judge writes the opinion when a majority of judges agree with the holding. A judge who voted with the majority opinion, but writes separately because her reasoning is different, issues a Concurring Opinion. A judge who writes a separate opinion where the reasoning and the holding are different from the majority issues a Dissenting Opinion. 

Official/Unofficial Reporters.  The official reporter is printed by the court, or a publisher selected by the court.  It is the authenticated record of court opinions.  Some courts recognize the West Publishing's regional reporter as official.  Table 1 of the Bluebook provides a complete listing of the reporters for each jurisdiction in the United States, and indicates which one is the bluebook "preferred" citation.

Reporter. A reporter is a collection of cases in chronological order. Originally in book form, reporters allow us to read the text of cases from a given court. Although you will read cases almost exclusively online, most reporter publishers continue to designate the citation of cases cases by the volume, reporter series, and starting page number of a case. 

Slip Opinion. The opinion as issued by the court as a stand-alone document on the day it is decided, before it has been assigned a volume and page number in the official reporter.  

Syllabus or Synopsis.  A summary of the case.  It will usually describe the procedural posture (how the case got to the court) and the holding. It is not part of the official opinion.

Topic and Key Number system. Developed by West Publishing (now ThomsonReuters) to identify related cases on a similar issue.  Each headnote in cases published by West will be assigned a corresponding topic and key number. 

Citation of Cases

Decoding Case Citations



This page will provide you with an overview of how to work with case law from U.S. courts.

At the end of this unit you should be able to:

  • Recognize the different parts of an appellate opinion
  • Distinguish editorial enhancements from the official text
  • Explain how cases are published (and by whom)
  • Explain why it's important to distinguish between editorial enhancement and text
  • Locate and read cases by using their citation
  • Understand how to update cases using a legal citator