The federal court system is composed of three levels:
|U.S. District Courts||These are the trial level of the federal courts and deal with disputes related to federal law, or between parties who reside in different states. They usually serve a section of a particular state - for example, California has a Northern, a Southern, an Eastern and a Central District.|
|U.S. Courts of Appeals||Also called the Circuit Courts of Appeal, these are the first level of appeal above the District Courts, and they handle appeals in cases that come from the state district courts that the circuit court covers. There are 11 main Circuit Courts, each covering a handful of states, plus the D.C. Circuit covering Washington D.C.|
|U.S. Supreme Court||The Supreme Court is at the top of the federal court food chain and is the last court of appeal in the federal system. The Supreme Court chooses a select number of cases each year, usually appeals from the lower federal courts, but also occasional cases from state courts that deal with federal issues.|
There are also other federal courts that deal with special issues, such as the Bankruptcy Courts or the Federal Circuit Court. The US Courts website has a good explanation of the basics of the federal court system.
The main database for researching federal case law is Lexis Academic. After opening Lexis, choose "US Legal" from the side menu and then choose "Federal & State Cases".
On that page, you can set the jurisdiction you wish to search in, such as "All Federal Courts" or "U.S. Supreme Court". You can also narrow it down to a specific Circuit Court or search at the District Court level.
Lexis Academic can be searched by citation, by party name, by legal topic, by judges, attorneys, or by keyword. You can also narrow the results by date.
Aside from Lexis Academic, there are other sources of federal law available online:
Case law is always changing over time as other courts interpret and comment upon earlier decisions. One of the key steps in doing case law research is determining whether a particular case is still applicable to a certain situation.
Lexis Academic provides a way for researchers to check the status of a particular decision. After opening Lexis Academic, choose "US Legal" from the side menu, and then select "Shepard's Citations". With this tool, a researcher can enter a case citation and get a report that shows the history of that particular case as well as a list of other cases that discuss the citation entered.
Google Scholar also provides citation reports for the cases it covers.