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Federal Research: Courts & Opinions

Research Databases

Finding Cases (Court Opinions)

Publication of Case Law

Not all court opinions are published or made publicly available. As a rule trial court rulings or decisions are not published. Appellate court decisions that could be used as future precedent are published or reported in case reporters. Attorneys use published case law as a means to interpret the law.

Here are some research guides created by other law schools that might be helpful in explaining how to find court opinions.

Online Legal Research Sites

How to Do Free Internet Legal Research - by the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. A little dated but good information about using the legal research sites below.

Google Scholar


Notice the two broad search settings.

  1. Articles (deselect patents unless you really want patents) 
    1. This selection is most effective if you are looking for a specific journal title or an article you know exists.
    2. You can search by author, publication, and date. 
  2. Case law
    1. If searching for case law, you then have the option to limit to particular courts.

Under Settings (if logged into your Google account)

  1. Go to Library Links
  2. Search for your college or university or the nearest to your institution
  3. Select the appropriate institutions
  4. Resources held by those institutions will be linked

General Legal Concepts


In general, there are trial courts and appellate courts.

Trial Courts

  • Generally cases begin in a trial court (courts of first instance or impression). The can be either by a judge (called a bench trial) or by a jury.
  • Parties appear, witnesses testify, and the evidence is presented.
  • The basic function of a trial court is to determine any questions of fact in dispute and then apply the relevant rules of law.

Appellate Courts

  • Generally either party may appeal the outcome of a trial. The winner in a civil case might appeal because the monetary award was too low but usually it's the losing party that appeals. In some types of criminal cases there is an automatic appeal. 
  • Each state has a final court of appeals or court of last resort. Thirty-eight states also have intermediate courts of appeals.
  • The appellate court decides questions of law and its decision in each case is based on the trial record from below, e.g., pre-trial proceedings and trial transcript. Appellate courts do not receive new testimony or decide questions of fact, and in most jurisdictions only the appellate courts issue written opinions.
  • When a case is appealed to an appellate court, both parties submit written briefs that contain a summary of the facts and arguments on the points of law involved, and the court may hear oral arguments by the attorneys. The court then issues an opinion which states the legal basis for the decision. Almost all of the court opinions you read are the decisions of appellate courts. Databases like Lexis and Westlaw do not contain trial court transcripts.
  • If the case is decided by an intermediate appellate court, the losing party may be able to appeal one more time. This second appeal is usually at the discretion of the higher court.


  United States Courts

Limited Jurisdiction Original Jurisdiction (GJC) Intermediate Appellate (IAC) Last Resort (COLR)

U.S. Tax Court

U.S. Claims Court

U.S. District Courts

  • Violations of federal criminal law
  • Disputes regarding federal laws or treaties
  • Some cases involving residents of different states

U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals 

  • These courts consider the appeals from the district courts in their circuit.  
  • There are 12 courts organized geographically and a 13th court, the Federal Circuit which hears appeals from all district court in patent cases and claims against the United States.

U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS)

  • Most of the cases heard are appeals from lower courts and cases from state supreme courts which involve a point of federal law.
  • The court has discretion to decide which cases it will consider.
  • Oyez - oral argument


State Courts

A sample of the various type of state courts. For other state court systems see Courts and judges by state from Balletpedia.

Jurisdiction Court of Limited Jurisdiction Court of Original Jurisdiction (GJC) Intermediate Appellate Court (IAC) Court of Last Resort (COLR)
 Georgia Magistrate Court
County Recorder's Court
 Superior Court  Court of Appeals  Supreme Court
 Maryland  District Court
 Orphan's Court
 Tax Court
 Circuit Court  Court of Special Appeals  Court of Appeals
 Michigan  District Court
 Probate Court
 Municipal Court
 Circuit Court  Court of Appeals  Supreme Court
 Montana  City Court
 Justice's Court
 District Court    Supreme Court
 New York  Surrogates' Court
 Town and Village Justice Court
 Supreme Court  Appellate Division of Supreme Court  Court of Appeals
 Pennsylvania   District Justice Court
 Philadelphia Municipal Court
 Court of Common Pleas  Superior Court
 Commonwealth Court
 Supreme Court



Another important principle in our legal system is that of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is power, the power or authority of the court to decide a matter in controversy. The authority to compel witnesses to testify or command people to turn over documents or property, or to jail them for contempt. Jurisdiction is established in constitutions and by statute and is usually done geographically or by subject.

There are some matters over which a state or federal court has exclusive jurisdiction and some matters over which a state court has concurrent jurisdiction with the federal courts. Federal courts can, in some instances, decide questions of state law; state courts can, in some instances, decide questions of federal law. Sometimes it might be difficult to determine which matters are questions of federal, or state law, or both.

  • Levels
    • Federal
    • State
    • Local
    • Administrative
  • Types
    • Concurrent
    • Exclusive


Precedent is based on stare decisis, which means “to stand on what has been decided". The principle developed in English common law and establishes that the decision of a court not only settles a dispute between the parties involved but also sets a precedent or model to be followed in future, similar cases.

A decision is binding authority on the court that issued the opinion and on lower courts in the same jurisdiction for the disposition of factually similar controversies. In a hierarchical system like our state and federal court systems, the decision of a trial court can bind future decisions of that trial court, but the decisions do not bind other trial courts or appellate courts. Appellate courts can bind themselves and lower courts over which they have appellate jurisdiction, but appellate courts cannot bind each other by their decisions.

A decision by the United States Supreme Court is binding precedent in all courts. Use the links under Court Structure to find the specific courts for your location.

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