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Basic Legal Research

What is a Reporter?

Court opinions are gathered together and published in chronological order in print in volumes called Case Reporters, or simply Reporters. Even though most cases are now available online, cases are still organized and cited to according to the print reporter system.

Case reporters can be official or unofficial. However, the text of the cases within the reporters are still considered primary sources (apart from any editorial additions in unofficial reporters such as headnotes), regardless of the cases' publication within an official or unofficial reporter.

  • Official Reporters are governmentally approved publications which reproduce the reported cases within a given jurisdiction. Many states still publish their own reporters. The official reporter is the reporter that should be cited when submitting documents to the court in that jurisdiction.
     
  • Unofficial Reporters also reproduce the reported cases within a given jurisdiction. However, they are published by commercial publishers (such as West, Lexis, BNA) and are generally considered unofficial reporters. Unofficial reporters may include editorial enhancements, such as headnotes, in addition to the text of the opinion.
    • A headnote is a brief summary of a specific point of law decided in a case.
    • Headnotes appear before the judicial opinion and are generally written by a publisher's editors.
    • Headnotes are a great research tool but are not considered legal authority and should never be cited to.

Reporters frequently have multiple series, which simply means the publisher re-started the volume numbering over again.

  • For example, the North Eastern Reporter Second Series (N.E.2d) contains volumes 1 through 999; the North Eastern Reporter Third Series (N.E.3d) starts over again with volume 1. Reporters with no series indicator are in their first series.
  • Note that "2d" and "3d" are used in legal citations instead of "2nd" and "3rd." All other ordinal abbreviations follow the usual format (1st, 4th, etc.).
  • Cases are not reprinted from one series to the next; each subsequent series contains all new cases.

What Cases are Published in Reporters?

At the State level: When you are reading state case law in a reporter, generally the decision will be from an appellate court (either at an intermediate or supreme court level).

  • Many, but certainly not all, appellate decisions are reported (published).

  • In some states, such as California or New York, some trial-level cases are published but those are exceptions.

At the Federal level:  You may be reading either trial or appellate-level cases in reporters.

  • The trial level cases are binding on no one but the parties involved, are used only for persuasive purposes, and are not precedental.

  • The appellate level decisions are binding to some extent on all trial courts within its district and itself.

West's Regional Reporter System

West Regional Reporter System Map

Source: https://lscontent.westlaw.com/images/content/nationalreporter/west_map_reg_v6/reg_reporters_map.html

West Publishing began printing reporters in the late 1800s, and the collection became known as the West Reporter System. West has compiled the state appellate decisions (including intermediate appellate reports and state supreme courts) and printed them in various sets of Regional Reporters. The Regional Reporters are considered "unofficial."

Regional Reporter Names, Abbreviations & Coverage:

  • Atlantic Reporter (A. | A.2d) - Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, & the D.C. Municipal Court of Appeals
  • North Eastern Reporter (N.E. | N.E.2d | N.E.3d) - Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York & Ohio
  • North Western Reporter (N.W. | N.W.2d) - Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota & Wisconsin
  • Pacific Reporter (P. | P.2d | P.3d) - Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawai'i, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington & Wyoming
  • South Eastern Reporter (S.E. | S.E.2d) - Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia & West Virginia
  • South Western Reporter (S.W. | S.W.2d | S.W.3d) - Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee & Texas
  • Southern Reporter (So. | So. 2d | So. 3d) - Alabama, Florida, Louisiana & Mississippi
  • State-specific Reporters Published by West:
  • New York Supplement (N.Y.S. | N.Y.S.2d)
  • California Reporter (Cal. Rptr. | Cal. Rptr. 2d | Cal. Rptr. 3d)

Federal Reporters

United States Supreme Court:

  • United States Reports (U.S.) - Official
  • Supreme Court Reporter (S. Ct.) - Unofficial (published by West)
  • United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyer's Edition (L. Ed. | L. Ed. 2d) - Unofficial (published by Lexis)

United States Court of Appeals:

  • Federal Reporter (F. | F.2d | F.3d) - Official
    • Though this reporter is published by a commercial publisher (West) it is considered an "official" reporter because there is no other comprehensive source that publishes these decisions. 

United States District Courts:

  • Federal Supplement (F. Supp. | F. Supp. 2d) - Official
    • Though this reporter is published by a commercial publisher (West) it is considered an "official" reporter because there is no other comprehensive source that publishes these decisions. 
  • Federal Appendix (F. App'x) - Official
    • Though this reporter is published by a commercial publisher (West) it is considered an "official" reporter because there is no other comprehensive source that publishes these decisions. 
    • The Federal Appendix contains "unpublished" opinions. These are decisions that do not involve new legal principles or interpretations, and because of this, were previously excluded from the official reporters (thus the term "unpublished"). Unpublished decisions issued after January 1, 2007 may now be cited by attorneys if a court so permits. However, the persuasive value will vary according to the preference of the court before which the decision is presented.
  • Federal Rules Decisions (F.R.D.) - Official
    • Though this reporter is published by a commercial publisher (West) it is considered an "official" reporter because there is no other comprehensive source that publishes these decisions. 
    • This reporter publishes cases dealing specifically with the Federal Rules of Evidence, Civil Procedure, and Criminal Procedure (three different sets of procedural rules).

Illinois Reporters

Supreme Court:

  • Cases decided prior to July 1, 2011: Illinois Reports (Ill. | Ill. 2d) - Official
  • Cases decided on or after July 1, 2011: posted on the Illinois Courts website (http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/) in public domain citation format - Official
  • North Eastern Reporter (N.E. | N.E.2d) - Unofficial (published by West)

Appellate Courts:

  • Cases decided prior to July 1, 2011: Illinois Appellate Court Reports (Ill. App. | Ill. App. 2d | Ill. App. 3d ) - Official
    • Important: the "2d" and "3d" in the title do not indicate the appellate district from which the decision came. They merely indicate a re-start to the numbering of the volumes in each series.
  • Cases decided on or after July 1, 2011: posted on the Illinois Courts website (http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/) in public domain citation format - Official
  • North Eastern Reporter (N.E. | N.E.2d | N.E.3d) - Unofficial (published by West)

About Headnotes

Headnotes are short, one- to two-sentence summaries of different aspects or issues of a case. They are found before the actual text of the decision begins. They are not part of the decision; they are an editorial enhancement provided by the legal research service.

Headnotes serve three main purposes:
  1. They identify the rules of law in the decision.
  2. They act as a "Table of Contents" to the case. Online, the hyperlinked number found in each headnote will bring you to the point in the decision where the discussion of that issue appears.
  3. They provide research references to locate additional case law. For this reason they are an excellent research tool.
    • The West topic and key number system can be used both online and in print research using West products.
    • Lexis topics/subjects can only be used in Lexis online.
    • Note that Lexis and West topics are not interchangeable. Even if the topic name is the same between the two services, the topics used in Lexis will not locate the same cases in Westlaw and vice versa.
Source of the language found in headnotes:
  • Headnotes in Lexis are always taken directly from the language of the case.
  • West headnotes are created by editors and may not always use the language of the case.
  • Important: Even though language from the case may be found in a headnote, never cite to a headnote. Only cite to the actual text of the decision.

About West Topics and Key Numbers

The West Topic and Key Number System is a proprietary method of organizing the scope of United States law by subject. It is basically a very large, detailed outline.

  • There are over 400 major Topics, which are the broad categories (subjects) under which West arranges the cases decided throughout the U.S.
  • Within the main Topics, sub-topics are divided into Key Numbers which represent specific legal concepts. There are over 100,000 individual Key Numbers.

Example: You are looking for cases regarding who is responsible for injuries caused by a dog biting a person.

  1. Go to the Descriptive Word Index in the digest and look up DOGS.
  2. Scan down the entries under the main topic of DOGS until you see "Persons liable, Generally."
  3. Following this entry, in bold, you will see: Anim <= 66.5(7). This means:
  • Your Topic is Animals ("Anim" is the abbreviation West uses for the topic "animals").
  • Your Key Number is 66.5(7). This is the key number West has assigned to the subheading that refers to cases involving "persons liable for injuries in general."

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