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Legal Research: Finding Cases, Legislation, and other Legal Material

United States Federal Court Structure

The United States Court system has three tiers:

  1. The Courts of the United States District Courts (trial courts)
  2. The Courts of the United States Courts of Appeals (intermediate courts of appeals)
  3. The Supreme Court of the United States

Finding Supreme Court cases

Opinions of the United States Supreme Court are published in three different reporter series: the government issued, official reporter, United States Reports, and two unofficial, commercial reporters: West's Supreme Court Reporter and United States Reports: Lawyer's Edition.

Finding Court of Appeals and District Court Cases

Opinions of the United States Courts of Appeals are published in West's Federal Reporter series, and opinions of the United States District Courts are published in West's Federal Supplement.

Recent Cases

More recent unpublished or yet-to-be-published opinions from the US appellate and district courts can be found on the websites for those courts.

Finding U.S. Tax Cases

Specialized courts often have their own reporter series. Examples of specialized reporters include West's Bankruptcy Reporter for bankruptcy courts and West's Military Justice Reporter for cases from U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and military courts of criminal appeals.

The official reporter of the United States Tax Courts, published by the U.S. government, is the Reports of the U.S. Tax Court (T.C). Another source for federal tax cases is U.S. Tax Cases, published by CCH, which includes federal tax cases from the district and appellate courts.‚Äč

Finding Federal Cases: Electronic Access

Electronic Access

Federal cases are also accessible online. 

Full annotated versions of state and federal cases can be found in the legal database Westlaw, available to students registered in the Paralegal program.

WestlawWestlaw

Legal database for searching cases, legislation, and secondary material. (NOTE: Access limited to current LSC paralegal students).

 

Finding Cases in Westlaw: Step by Step

Full, annotated versions of state and federal cases can be found on Westlaw

To search for a case on Westlaw:

  1. From the Westlaw homepage, use the main search box to search for your case. Click on the space next to the orange magnifying glass to narrow the Jurisdiction for your search.

Westlaw search box with Jurisdiction circled

  1. For Texas, narrow your Jurisdiction to Texas and 5th Circuit.

Westlaw Jurisdiction box

  1. You can search by citation, by party names, or by keywords
  2. Searching by a citation will bring you straight to the report for that case. Searching by party names or keywords will bring you to a search results page. Click on the name of a case to bring up the case report.

Westlaw search results for keyword search for arson

  1. On Westlaw, you will see more annotations including Headnotes and tabs for Negative TreatmentHistory, and Citing References

screenshot of the tabs for a case report in Westlaw

Negative Treatment = Lists all cases that have had a negative impact on the ruling of the case that you are viewing. Negative Treatment is also indicated by Flags in front of the case name.

Red flag = The case is no longer good for at least one point of law. It was reversed or overruled

Yellow flag = The case has some negative treatment but it has not been reversed or overruled

History = Displays the case's history as it moved through the courts

Citing References = Provides a list of all cases or other documents that have cited your case since it was published

 

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Unpublished Opinions

Most court opinions go unpublished, with only about 20% of U.S. Court of Appeals case opinions and a minute percentage of U.S. district court opinions published. Unpublished opinions are those not accepted for publication in the reporter series, because they are either too recent or the publishers felt they were not of enough significance.

While not in reporters, these opinions may still appear in legal databases like Lexis and Westlaw or be accessible on courts' websites or through docket services.

For more information, see Spencer L. Simons, Texas Legal Research 61-64 (Revised ed. 2012).

Westlaw

Only currently registered Lone Star paralegal students can access Westlaw. Current paralegal students will receive an email to their MyLoneStar student email from Thomson Reuters with details on how to activate their personal account. For problems with this, please contact the Paralegal department.

Westlaw Guides