Case Law
An Online Reference Guide

What is Case Law?
Some facts and statistics
Researching Case Law: factors to consider
     Jurisdiction
     Type of courts
          Federal Courts
          Illinois State Courts
Finding court opinions
     What opinions are published?
     How are opinions published?
     How are opinions identified?
     How to read a citation
 
U.S. Supreme Court opinions
U.S. Circuit Court opinions
Illinois Supreme Court opinions
Illinois Appellate Court opinions
Other sources of court opinions
Where to find unpublished opinions
How to find cases by topic
 

What is Case Law?

  • Judges interpret statutes and regulations by ruling in court cases
  • Higher court judges publish their rulings as judicial "opinions" or "decisions"
  • These published opinions set precedents (binding or persuasive) for future decisions
  • The area of law made up of these opinions is known as "Case Law" or "Common Law"

Back to Top

Some Facts and Statistics

  • State court cases far outnumber federal court cases - over twice as many in Illinois alone as in all federal courts
  • In both Illinois and the federal system, there are millions of trial court cases, thousands of appellate cases, and hundreds of Supreme Court cases
  • Only a small fraction of all decisions are ever published in print or online

Back to Top

Researching Case Law: Factors to Consider

Some essential factors to consider when researching case law are jurisdiction, the type of court, how the law is published, and when the law was published.

Jurisdiction

Federal Courts have jurisdiction over:

  • Cases involving federal laws such as:
         Bankruptcy
         Taxes
         Patents, trademarks, and copyright
         Civil rights
  • Cases where the U.S. Government is a party
  • Cases where the parties are from different states

State Courts have jurisdiction over cases involving state laws such as:
     Property
     Criminal law
     Contracts
     Family law

Back to Top

Type of Courts

Federal and Illinois State Courts have a three-part hierarchical arrangement consisting of:
     Trial Courts
     Intermediate Appellate Courts
     Highest Appellate Court/Court of Last Resort

In addition, there are several special federal courts

Federal Courts

The three-part hierarchical arrangement in the Federal Court System consists of:

There are also a number of Special Federal Courts that handle special legislation.  These include:

Illinois State Courts

The three-part hierarchical arrangement in the Illinois State Court System consists of:

Back to Top

Finding Court Opinions

What Opinions Are Published?

  • No state trial court (Illinois Circuit Court) opinions are published, either in print or online
  • Very few federal trial court (U.S. District Court) opinions are published, either in print or online
  • Only state and federal higher court opinions are generally published, usually both in print and online

Back to Top

How Are Opinions Published?

  • U.S. Supreme Court and Illinois higher court opinions are published both officially by government agencies and unofficially by West Publishing
  • U.S. Circuit Court opinions are published only unofficially by West
  • Official publications are titled Reports and West publications are titled Reporters
  • West's Federal Reporter covers U.S. Circuit Courts
  • West's regional reporters cover higher courts for one or more states with Illinois in the North Eastern Reporter
  • Lawyers use West publications for their helpful editorial material and summaries

Back to Top

How are Opinions Identified?

Opinions can be identified several ways:

  • By party names
    Example: Bush v. Gore
  • By Official and/or unofficial citations (published opinions)
    Example: 306 Ill. App. 3d 1131, 716 N.E. 2d 323
  • By Docket Number (unpublished opinions)
    Example: Smith v. Jones. No. CH87-100(Ill. Cir.Ct. Cook County, Sept. 3, 1987)

Back to Top

How to Read a Citation

Example: People v. Jones, 188 ILL. 2d 352 (1999)

  • People v. Jones = party names
  • 188 = volume of reporter
  • Ill. 2d = name and edition of reporter (Illinois Reports 2d)
  • 352 = page number of opinion
  • 1999 = year opinion was issued

Back to Top

U.S. Supreme Court Opinions

Print

  • Official print source: United States Reports (abbreviated as "U.S.")
  • Unofficial print source: Supreme Court Reporter (abbreviated as "S.Ct.")
  • Another unofficial print source: United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers Edition (abbreviated as "L.Ed.")

Online

Back to Top

U.S. Circuit Court Opinions

Print

  • Unofficial print source: Federal Reporter 3d (abbreviated as "F 3d")

Online

  • Separate sites for each Court (1995 to the present)
    See the Circuit Courts section of Northern Illinois University's College of Law site

Back to Top

Illinois Supreme Court Opinions

Print

  • Official print source:  Illinois Reports 2d (abbreviated as "Ill. 2d")
  • Unofficial print source: North Eastern Reporter 3d (abbreviated as "N.E. 2d")
  • Another unofficial print source:  West's Illinois Decisions (abbreviated as "Ill. Dec")

Online

Back to Top

Illinois Appellate Court Opinions

Print

  • Official print source:  Illinois Appellate Court Reports 3d   (abbreviated as "Ill. App 3d")
  • Unofficial Print Source: North Eastern Reporter 3d (abbreviated as "N.E. 2d")
  • Another Unofficial Print Source:  West's Illinois Decisions (abbreviated as "Ill. Dec")

Online

Back to Top

Other Sources of Court Opinions

PACER  (Public Access to Court Electronic Records)

  • Database of federal court records including opinions if available
  • Available on the Internet, but users must register and pay $.07 for each page displayed

Back to Top

Where to Find Unpublished Opinions

Back to Top

How to Find Cases by Topic

  • Lawyers use publications called "digests" to find cases relevant to a particular issue; Skokie Public Library doesn't have these
  • Citations to important cases can be found in reference works such as legal encyclopedias or annotated codes
  • Searching legal databases such as Westlaw by keywords is possible but difficult

Back to Top