Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

Law Library

Federal Cases: A Research Guide

Sources of Federal Case Law

Supreme Court Reports

All decisions are published. There are three reporters by three publishers. Each reporter has different editorial features.

  1. United States Reports (U.S.)
    U.S. Government Printing Office
    The official reporter; no editorial enhancements
    2–3 years publication cycle
    Published first as slip opinions; then as preliminary prints; then permanently
  2. Supreme Court Reporter (S. Ct.)
    Unofficial reporter. Editorial enhancements include: syllabus, headnotes, digest and key numbers
    Published first in advance sheets; then in bound volumes
  3. United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers Edition (L. Ed., L. Ed. 2d)
    LexisNexis Group
    Unofficial reporter. Editorial enhancements include: summaries, headnotes, summaries of attorney’s briefs (selected), annotations (selected) in appendix to each volume
    Published first in advance sheets; then in bound volumes
  4. United States Law Week (U.S.L.W.)
    Bureau of National Affairs
    Looseleaf service that reports Supreme Court Decisions, as well as information on Supreme Court business and lower federal court cases (summaries only)
  5. Online Sources:

Lower Federal Court Cases

There are no “official” reports for the lower federal courts. The federal district courts are the federal trial courts and only a fraction of those decisions are published. The federal circuit courts are appellate courts, and a larger percentage of those reports are published. There are also federal courts with limited or specialized jurisdiction.

  1. Federal Cases (F. Cas.)
    Pre- National Reporter System. Covers 1789–1879
    Arranged alphabetically by case name
  2. Federal Rules Decisions (F.R.D.)
    District court cases that construe federal rules of civil procedure (1939– ) and federal rules of criminal procedure (1946– ). Also included are articles about the federal judiciary. Self-indexed at ten year intervals.
  3. Federal Rules Service (Fed. R. Serv.)
    Federal court cases that construe the federal rules of civil procedure and the federal rules of appellate procedure. (1939– )
  4. Federal Supplement (F. Supp., F. Supp. 2d)
    Small percentage of district court cases to be found here
    Coverage is 1932 to current. Publishing decision made by authoring judge. Some district court cases not reported here may be found in subject reporters, looseleaf services, or online. Full West editorial enhancements.
  5. Federal Reports (F., F.2d, F.3d)
    Cases from the United States Courts of Appeals 1880 to current.
    Cases are published according to court rules. Periodically a table of decisions without published opinions will appear. These “unpublished” opinions will frequently turn up in online services.
    Full West editorial enhancements
  6. American Law Reports Federal (A.L.R. Fed)
    Thomson Reuters/West
    A.L.R. Fed. 1969 to current; Pre-1969, federal cases included in A.L.R.– A.L.R.3rd.
    Selected reports that include in depth annotations on the points of law presented.
  • Popular specialized reporters for federal courts
    1. Bankruptcy Reporter (B.R.) 1980– .
    2. Federal Claims Reporter (Fed. Cl.) 1983– .
    3. U.S. Tax Court Reports (T.C.) 1942– .
      U.S. Government Printing Office
  • Online resources for federal case law
    1. Supreme Court: Westlaw SCT; LexisNexis GENFED;US;
    2. District Courts: Westlaw DCT; LexisNexis GENFED;DIST;
    3. Courts of Appeals: Westlaw CTA; LexisNexis GENFED;USAPP;
    4. Bankruptcy Courts: Westlaw FBKR-CS; LexisNexis BKRTCY;COURTS;
    5. Court of Federal Claims: Westlaw FEDCL; LexisNexis GENFED;CLAIMS;
    6. Tax Court: Westlaw FTX-TCT; LexisNexis FEDTAX;TC.

Finding Case Law

Usually some combination of a case already known to be relevant; using a citator to find additional cases on point; using a digest; using a secondary source; using an online service.



  1. These are editorial products that seek to give the researcher access to relevant case law using a subject approach. The West digest system divides the legal universe into 7 main divisions (Persons, Property, Contracts, Torts, Crimes, Remedies, Government) and then subdivided into 400+ digest “topics”. Each digest topic is subdivided into subtopics, each assigned a “key number”.
  2. Every case that is published in West’s National Reporter System is analyzed and assigned a digest topic and key number for every point of law contained in that opinion. A digest “headnote” is prepared. You will see a series of headnotes preceding each published opinion.
  3. Once you can determine what topic/key numbers apply to the legal issue you are researching, you can go directly to the appropriate digest and find cases that have been assigned that particular topic/key number.

Which digest to use

Use the digest that is most relevant to the jurisdiction you wish to research. West publishes digests for individual states, for regional reporters, for federal case law, for specialized subject areas. They all work the same way.


How to use a digest

  1. If a digest is the place you are beginning your research, consult the DESCRIPTIVE WORD INDEX using concepts you are trying to research. The Descriptive Word Index will point you toward relevant digest/key numbers.
  2. Check the topic description that precedes the digest itself to be sure that the issue you are researching is covered by the scope of the topic selected.
  3. Locate the key number you found in the Descriptive Word Index in the detailed table of contents for the topic. Are there any other key numbers that might glean additional cases?
  4. Once you have the relevant key numbers you wish to use, proceed to the key number within the digest topic. What you will find are headnotes that state the holding of a case. It will also tell you which court decided the case; the year of the case; the name of the case; the complete citation to the full text of the case.
  5. Always check the pocket part at the back of the bound volume of the digest for current cases decided since the publication of the volume.
  7. An alternative approach to beginning with the Descriptive Word Index is to begin by selecting a digest topic. Go directly to the topic in the digest and check the detailed table of contents of that topic to determine which key numbers might be relevant to your research. Proceed to those key numbers in the digest.

You have a case you know to be relevant

  1. Sometimes you begin your research with a case that you know is relevant, and you want to find other cases that discuss these legal issues. Any case appearing in the West’s national reporter system is edited to include a digest topic and key number for each legal issue presented in the case. These are located just before the judge’s written decision. Determine which of these topics and key numbers are relevant to your research, select a digest for the jurisdictions you wish to research, and go directly to that digest topic and key number to find other relevant cases on your research issue.
  2. Go to the Table of Cases in the digest most relevant to your research. Locate the case name. In addition to the case citation, there will be digest topics/key numbers that the editors of the digest have assigned to the case decision. Proceed to those digest topic/key numbers. See above for complete instructions.

Shepardize a case you know to be relevant

Another approach to finding case law through headnotes is to Shepardize a case you know to be on point. After identifying which headnotes in that case are relevant to your research, consult the Shepards Citator for your case reporter, and search the entry for your case for other cases that involve your headnote. These case citations will have a superscript number corresponding with the relevant headnote number from your case.


If you are researching a statute

Check your statute in the annotated version of the federal code (U.S.C.A. or U.S.C.S.). The annotation to the statute will include digested headnotes to cases construing the statute. Use the topic and key number of the headnote to enter the federal digest for additional cases.


Use a secondary source

Law review articles, legal encyclopedias, and treatises on your research topic are all resources you can use to locate relevant cases. Once you have found a case or two and you have read the cases to be sure that they are relevant to your research, you can find additional cases through a digest, or through shepardizing the case you have found, as discussed above.


Using an online service

Federal case law is included in both LexisNexis and Westlaw. See Sources of Federal Case Law, above.

Digests for Federal Case Law

  1. Supreme Court Digest
  2. Digest of United States Supreme Court Reports
    LexisNexis Group
  3. West’s Federal Practice Digest, 4th 1983/86 to date
    Also, West’s Federal Practice Digest 3rd (1975–1983/86); Federal Practice Digest 2d (1961–1975); Modern Federal Practice Digest (1939–1960); Federal Digest (all federal cases through 1938)
  4. West’s Decennial Digests (1658– )
    This series includes EVERY reported case, federal and state from 1658–date. Under each topic/key number, case headnotes are arranged: Supreme Court, other federal courts, states (alphabetically). Later decennial digests issued in two parts (five years coverage each). Each decennial digest has its own set of indexes: descriptive-word index and table of cases.
  5. West’s General Digest (updates the most current decennial digest)
    Includes EVERY reported case, federal and state. Index every ten volumes. After that, check each volume’s index. Eventually recompiled and reissued as a Decennial Digest.
  6. A.L.R. Digest 3rd - 4th - 5th - Fed
  7. Federal Rules Digest
  8. Bankruptcy Digest
  9. U.S. Claims Court Digest

Tips For Locating Federal Case Law

  • Use the digest with the smallest focus that is appropriate for your research needs. Be sure to check ALL the supplementation: pocket parts, cumulative supplements, latest reporter volumes or online.
  • Your first choice is always to choose federal cases that are mandatory authority for your decisionmaker. In Arizona, that would be: District of Arizona, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. All other authority is merely persuasive.
  • Make sure that the cases you wish to use as authority are still in force. Shepardize, for subsequent history.

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