With any problem that involves unfamiliar issues and terminology, secondary sources are useful for background information. Hornbooks and treatises often provide a framework for further research and may provide citations to key federal cases. Law review articles covering federal topics may be quite easy to locate, online in Lexis, Westlaw, HeinOnline, or in periodical indexes. The general encyclopedias, American Jurisprudence 2d and Corpus Juris Secundum, can be helpful starting points if used very carefully. ALR Federal can also be an excellent starting source because, unlike ALR which only covers state case law, ALR Federal includes references to federal statutes in addition to cases.
Identifying the jurisdiction is a critical step that should be taken prior to beginning research on a federal question. The nation is divided into eleven federal judicial circuits, each including several states. Each state has at least one federal district (trial level) court. If the problem you are researching involves a federal issue set in a particular state, identifying the circuit covering the state is a crucial first step.
Either of the two annotated federal codes, United States Code Annotated or United States Code Service, can be used for locating federal statutes. Both have soft bound index volumes, replaced annually, that provide subject access to federal code sections. Even if you have picked up a cite to a federal statute from a secondary source, a few minutes spent double-checking the index is important as there may be other statutes applicable to your research. The same principles that apply to searching state statutes apply in the federal arena. For example, once you have a cite to a particular section, checking the pocket parts and supplements first is a good idea. Look for definitions sections and adjacent sections that may be relevant to the problem. Go through the case annotations, checking for U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and paying particular attention to cases that have been decided by the pertinent Circuit Court of Appeals and to decisions of district courts in the state in which your problem is set.
Annotated federal statutes are available on Bloomberg Law, Lexis and Westlaw as well as in print form. The same rule of thumb applies to searching in either format If you cannot find something within about 15 minutes, stop and try searching in print if you started online or vice versa. If that does not work, go on to another source and keep watching for relevant statute cites. For example, note that Bloomberg Law statutory annotations are still in development and you may find more annotations in another source.
Several possibilities exist for locating relevant federal cases and a researcher who wants to do a thorough research job will utilize a variety of sources to ensure that the important cases are found. The traditional method involves using West's Federal Practice Digest and its topic and key number system. Start with the most recent series of the digest. Similar to the state system, this digest has Descriptive Word Index volumes to help you identify potentially relevant topics and key numbers. Because the volume of federal cases is so high, the federal digest is published in several series covering different year spans, so it is important to realize that the current series only covers relatively recent cases. Useful cases may reside in an earlier federal digest set. As is true with state digests, identifying possible topic/key numbers from cases found in secondary sources can help make the digest search easier, although it is still important to double-check the index volumes. ALR Federal is a good, although not comprehensive, source for identifying case citations.
In print sources such as the digests, relevant cases may be cited under pertinent topics, but the descriptions may not give enough information or may give misleading information that makes one assume that the cases are not relevant. Since both the federal digest and ALR Federal provide a compilation of cases from all federal jurisdictions, it is important to focus on U.S. Supreme Court decisions and on decisions of the relevant circuit and then look up all the decisions that could potentially be relevant, even if they do not appear to be directly on point. Obviously, this approach does not work if the volume of cases is large; if so, you will have to be more selective.
While district court decisions are not mandatory authority, in the absence of a higher court decision it may still be important to read those from the particular state. Among other reasons, the district court may be the court that would hear the case if the current problem winds up in litigation; and, if the decision is recent, it may have been appealed to the Circuit Court. District court cases from other states within the same circuit may also be important if they have been appealed to Circuit Court.
This library maintains current subscriptions to the three U.S. Supreme Court reporters: United States Reports, West's Supreme Court Reporter and Lawyers' Edition 2d. Federal circuit court decisions are found in the Federal Reporter and selected district court decisions are published in Federal Supplement. West introduced the Federal Appendix in 2001, a reporter that contains unpublished opinions - opinions that the issuing court has not ordered to be published. Many unpublished opinions are available on Lexis and Westlaw. Use great caution when relying on an unpublished opinion as it may not have precedential value in your jurisdiction.
Federal databases in Lexis and Westlaw can be valuable case finding tools. Both systems offer several database combinations for federal case law. Many of these are very broad in coverage, including cases from the U.S. Supreme Court as well as cases from various combinations of District and Circuit courts. As with print sources, limiting your search initially to cases in either the Supreme Court or a particular circuit court may make the search manageable.
As always, the scope of your research should be a factor in selection of a database or source. The significance of persuasive authorities in federal jurisprudence makes it more likely that you will need to search beyond your immediate jurisdiction, but many of the databases/sources which combine federal court decisions may be too large to be a good starting point when you are still trying to define research terms and concepts. The larger databases may be more costly to search, as well as being inefficient. In any event, be sure to ascertain the exact coverage of the various options. Use the print directories for each service or the online database descriptions to ascertain the coverage of the databases before you start running searches.
At some point, even if the law in a particular jurisdiction seems clear, it is important to get a perspective on the state of the law in other circuits. Knowing whether the approach your circuit is taking is consistent with or against the national trends is an important part of the larger picture. For this purpose, ALR Federal and recent law review articles can be helpful. Using Shepard's or KeyCite as a case finder with particular attention paid to very recent court decisions can be valuable.
As with state case law research, taking steps to validate all cases you are planning to cite is critical. This can be done by using Shepard's on Lexis or KeyCite on Westlaw.
Returning to treatises and law review articles toward the end of the research process may be a good ending step. With information gained by reading the cases that constitute mandatory authority for the particular problem, re-reading the more general discussions can help put things into perspective.