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Case Law: Federal Courts

Basic Legal Research Concepts

Federal Courts

Federal Courts

United States Supreme Court

The primary print sources of the United States Supreme Court opinions are United States Reports, The Supreme Court Reporter, Supreme Court Reports Lawyers Edition, and U.S. Law Week.

United States Reports printed hardbound volumes (published by the Government Printing Office) are the only official and authoritative source of United States Supreme Court opinions. In the event of any discrepancy among various versions of the Court’s opinions, this source supersedes all other printed and electronic versions, even if the electronic version comes from the Supreme Court’s own website. The name of the official advance sheet to United States Reports is “Preliminary Print.”

U.S. Law Week reproduces recent United States Supreme Court slip opinions.

United States Court of Appeals and United States District Court opinions are published by West. These opinions may also be included in the ALR series and in topical law reports.

United States District Courts

Federal Supplement publishes selective cases from the United States District Courts.  The cases are selected for publication by the judge authoring the opinion.

Federal Rules Decisions also publishes selective opinions from the United States District Courts, however the cases generally involve interpretation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, and Federal Rules of Evidence that are not published in the Federal Supplement.

Not all of the decisions published in Federal Supplement and Federal Rules Decisions are dispositive of the case. Rather, the court is frequently resolving an issue of law regarding the application of some aspect of the federal rules to the case, and the case is published to provide guidance to others regarding the application of the rule by the court.

United States Courts of Appeals and Court of Claims

Federal Reporter publishes selective cases decided by the United States courts of appeal and the United States Court of Claims. Cases to be published in Federal Reporter are selected by the court issuing the opinion. Cases designated as being not for publication by the courts of appeals are published in Federal Appendix. Notwithstanding that the cases in Federal Appendix have been designated as being not for publication, the Federal Appendix is part of the National Reporter System.

Unpublished Opinions

An unpublished opinion is an opinion that has been designated by the issuing court as being not for publication in a specific court report. It can also be referred to as an “unpublished decision,” or “not for publication.”

“Unpublished” cases are published in online databases and in various print reports, such as Federal Appendix or various topical law reports. Unpublished opinions may subsequently be designated by the issuing court as for publication. Court rules may provide procedures for a party’s attorney or a pro se party to move for publication of an unpublished opinion. Currently, approximately 84 percent of opinions or orders of the United States courts of Appeals are designated as not for publication.

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