Case reporters are series of volumes that contain the text of published cases. The cases are generally published chronologically as they are decided; they are not grouped by subject, judge, or other system. Official reporters are sanctioned by statute or court rule. Official reporters may or may not be printed by a government body.
There are many published reporter series. Separate sets of reporters exist for the United States Supreme Court, for various federal courts, and for state courts. A number of different publishers are involved in producing print reporters; however, for more than a century the publishing of American court cases has been dominated by one company, West Publishing, now known as Thomson West, a part of Thomson Reuters.
Most reporters only publish appellate court cases. This is because at the state level, trial court cases are for the most part not reported. Selected federal trial court cases are reported in the Federal Supplement. For particularly important unreported trial court cases, check newspapers or perhaps subject-specialized reporters from the time of the decision. Materials in court files are generally available to the public. Exceptions include juvenile court records, which are closed in most jurisdictions, and cases in which the trial judge has ordered the record sealed. To find out what materials are available, contact the clerk of the court in which the trial was held. The library has directories to help in locating contact information.
A case may be ordered unpublished or depublished for a variety of reasons, e.g.: the judge doesn't want it cited as precedent, the case has been overturned, the case has been granted review in a higher court, or the judge just thinks too many unimportant cases get printed. Always check local court rules before using unpublished cases as authority.
Beginning late in the nineteenth century, West Publishing Company developed a system of case reporters which provided court opinions from all fifty states. There are seven regional reporters (Atlantic, North Eastern, North Western, Pacific, South Eastern, South Western, and Southern) and a separate reporter for each of two large states, New York and California. These constitute the National Reporter System. There are still a number of reporters that publish cases from one state only; for example, our library maintains an up-to-date set of both Maryland Reports (opinions of the Maryland Court of Appeals) and Maryland Appellate Reports (opinions of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals). Most of the single state reporters are designated as official reports because they are published under the authority of the state government. For about one half of the states, however, there is no longer a separate reporter devoted to cases from only that state. The tendency has been to rely increasingly upon the National Reporter System for print versions of cases from the fifty states, even when official reporters still exist. Our library does not maintain an up-to-date set of National Reporter System reporters as the opinions are widely available from online legal research services.
Many reporters add summaries, called the syllabus and headnotes, to the official text of cases. The syllabus and headnotes are handy brief summaries of rules of law and significant facts drafted by publishers' editors or court recorders. They are not authoritative, although an exception is that in Ohio the syllabus is authoritative. Never cite to a case solely on the basis of the headnote or syllabus. You must always read the full case. Headnotes may not contain sufficient factual information to accurately assess the holding of the case; on occasion the headnote may even misrepresent the holding. In rare cases they are frankly erroneous. An example is omission of the word “not” from a headnote. Think of the headnotes and syllabus as finding tools.
Many reporters also list counsel for the various parties somewhere near the beginning of the text of each case. The names of counsel can give you a contact person to call for further details or subsequent history of a case, or to request copies of briefs.
Advance sheets are freestanding paper pamphlets that supplement reporter sets. Eventually they are replaced by bound volumes. While the exact contents will vary from reporter to reporter, most advance sheets have the following features in addition to the text of the cases.
The exact features vary by reporter. Generally speaking though, there is a wealth of information and finding tools that go far beyond just the most recent cases.
Because case reporters print cases chronologically, an indexing system is necessary to do effective research. Though other indexing systems exist, the most comprehensive and well known has been developed by the West Publishing Company. West has developed a system for indexing cases based on the Topic and Key Number System. This system divides the law into more than 400 broad topics. Within each topic, subtopics are represented by key numbers. Over the years, as the law has developed and grown in complexity, many new topics have been instituted and key numbers have proliferated within both old and new topics. Some complex topics have thousands of subtopics represented by key numbers; other topics have many fewer. The print version of the topic and key number system can be found in a series of West digests, available for state and federal courts. The topic and key number system is also available online on Westlaw. Except for the digest for Maryland, our library does not maintain an up-to-date digest for any other jurisdiction.
Every case published in the West reporters is indexed by editors who assign a topic and key number to each issue decided in the case and write a short summary (abstract) of the issue. The two things combined, the topic/key number and the summary of the issue, are consolidated into a headnote. In each reported case, headnotes appear before the text of the opinion. Some cases have only one headnote while others have dozens, depending on the number and complexity of the issues in the case. Central to understanding the West indexing/reporting system is the connection between the headnotes which appear in the reported versions of the cases and the digest summaries. The brief summary of each issue that appears in a headnote at the beginning of a reported case also appears under that corresponding topic and key number in the Digest. The digest provides a subject arrangement of summaries of cases arising in the jurisdictions that are covered by the particular digest, along with citations to the reporters where the full text of the opinions can be found.
West publishes regional digests for four of its seven regional reporters. For states not covered by a regional digest our library has individual state digests. However, all of these digests in our library, with the exception of the Maryland Digest, are updated only through 2006. WestlawNext provides online access to the West Key Number System, an outline of the Topics and Key Numbers. This online tool is kept up-to-date and is even more current than the print digests.
Westlaw claims to provide comprehensive coverage of all reported appellate decisions in or arising in a particular state or region. Digests are merely finding tools and are never cited. A case described within a digest should never be cited without first reading the full text of the case itself, verifying the digest’s categorization, and making sure the case is still good law.
All state, regional and federal digests published by West have similar features listed below.
Choose the digest most narrowly focused to your research topic. For example, if you need California cases only, use a California digest instead of the Pacific Digest. In our library, check the list entitled “State and Regional Case Law Resources” to determine which digest is available for your jurisdiction. Always be sure to check for pocket parts in the specific volume of the digest, keeping in mind that it is only updated through 2006. If there are multiple series of a digest, it usually makes sense to start with the most recent and work your way back as needed.
The Descriptive Word Index is usually the best starting point to the digest. Since both facts and legal terms may be searched in the index, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of the legal issues involved in a particular problem before attempting to navigate the index. A known statute can be a good access point into digests that have a table of statutes. A known case is also a good access point, as it is often an efficient strategy to take the topic and key numbers from relevant cases already found and look up those topic and key numbers in the digest. A caution with the known case strategy is that key numbers do change so older cases may not be indexed under current key numbers for that topic. Also, nuances between key numbers may not be substantial and a check of the index and the topic outline should be undertaken to locate all relevant key numbers.
A.L.R. is characterized as a case finding tool by some researchers. A.L.R. publishes an annotation or review article discussing a topic along with the full text of a representative case. Annotations attempt to provide discussion of and citations to previously reported cases on a topic. The annotations discuss all sides of the issue. Annotations present general principles deduced from the cases and give their exceptions, qualifications, distinctions and applications, as well as jurisdictional based differences. Our library maintains a print collection of A.L.R. titles updated only through 2015.