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.
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.
Notice the two broad search settings.
Under Settings (if logged into your Google account)
In general, there are trial courts and appellate courts.
|Limited Jurisdiction||Original Jurisdiction (GJC)||Intermediate Appellate (IAC)||Last Resort (COLR)|
U.S. Tax Court
U.S. Claims Court
U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS)
A sample of the various type of state courts. For other state court systems see the National Center for State Courts website.
|Jurisdiction||Court of Limited Jurisdiction||Court of Original Jurisdiction (GJC)||Intermediate Appellate Court (IAC)||Court of Last Resort (COLR)|
County Recorder's Court
|Superior Court||Court of Appeals||Supreme Court|
|Maryland|| District Court
|Circuit Court||Court of Special Appeals||Court of Appeals|
|Michigan|| District Court
|Circuit Court||Court of Appeals||Supreme Court|
|Montana|| City 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
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.
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.