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LRAC Legal Research Class Site

Finding Federal Cases

Luckily, there is NOTHING new to learn about finding federal cases. You use the exact same case finding methods that you use to find Arizona cases. 

  • Looking at statutory annotations (Westlaw's Notes of Decision)
  • Looking at KeyCite/Shepard's Citing References
  • Searching (natural language or terms and connectors)
  • Using Westlaw Key Numbers/Lexis Headnotes
  • Reading secondary sources
  • Reading cases
  • Using the One Good Case case finding method

Federal Court Structure

The federal court structure is just like the Arizona court structure.

There are trial courts (U.S. District Courts), intermediate appellate courts (U.S. Courts of Appeals) and an appellate court of last resort (U.S. Supreme Court). 

Federal District Courts


  • U.S. District Courts are the federal trial courts
  • There are 94 U.S. District Courts
    • Some states, such as Arizona, are covered by a single court (though it has multiple divisions - Phoenix, Tucson, and Prescott)
    • Others, such as California, have multiple courts (Northern, Eastern, Central, and Southern districts)
    • There are also District Courts in territories such as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands
  • Each U.S. District Court is part of a U.S. Court of Appeals Circuit which handles appeals
  • Arizona is in the 9th Circuit along with California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and Northern Mariana Islands
Publication of Opinions
  • Federal Supplement 
    • The Federal Supplementis the West reporter for District Court opinions (part of the National Reporter System) 
      • Terminology:
        • Unpublished: All District Court opinions are unpublished because they have no precedential value and cannot be sited as precedent according to court rules
        • Reported: Some District Court opinions are published in the Federal Supplement and are said to be reported (aka published in a print reporter)
        •  Unreported: Not all District Court cases are reported/published in the Federal Supplement so they are said to be unreported
          • Depends on court rules and the preferences of judges
          • Also, depends on the publication guidelines of the Federal Supplement
        • Available on Westlaw/Lexis: Even though an opinion is unreported (doesn't appear in the Federal Supplement) it can still be available on Westlaw and Lexis 
          • Important:
            • The important things to remember:
              • Only cite cases in court documents that are allowed by court rules
              • If someone says that a U.S. District Case is unpublished or unreported, the person probably means that it does not appear in the Federal Supplement
      • Federal Supplement is now up to the third series
        • Federal Supplement, First Series (1933–1998)
          • Citation format - 19 F.Supp. 392
        • Federal Supplement, Second Series (1998–2014)
          • Citation format - 326 F.Supp.2d 160  
        • Federal Supplement, Third Series (2014–present)
          • Citation format example - 20 F.Supp.3d 749 
  • Commercial Services
    • There are many commercial sites with District Court cases
    • Westlaw, Lexis, Fastcase, etc.
  • Free Websites
    • There are also lots of free websites
    • Google Scholar, court web sites, etc. 


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Federal Court of Appeals


 Publication of Opinions

  • Federal Reporter
    • Court of Appeals cases are published in the Federal Reporter (part of the National Reporter System)
      • Reported/Published
      • Unpublished
        • Cases not designated as published according ot court rules (aka unpublished) were reported in the Federal Appendix (Fed.Appx.) from 2001 - 2021
        • During this time, these opinions were also available on Westlaw/Lexis
      • Unpublished (and available on Westlaw/Lexis)
        • Cases not designated as published (aka unpublished) are available on Westlaw/Lexis
    • The Federal Reporter is now up to its fourth series
      • Federal Reporter, First Series (1880–1924)
        • Citation format example - 300 F. 25
      • Federal Reporter, Second Series (1924–1993)
        • Citation format example - 258 F.2d 98
      • Federal Reporter, Third Series (1993 - 2021)
        • Citation format example - F.3d 118
      • Federal Reporter, Fourth Series (2021 - present)
        • Citation format example - F.4th 118
  • Commercial Services
    • There are many commercial sites with Courts of Appeal cases
    • Westlaw, Lexis, Fastcase, etc.
  • Free Websites
    • There are also lots of free websites
    • Google Scholar, court web sites, etc. 


United States Supreme Court


  • The U.S. Supreme Court is the federal appellate court of last resort
  • Two types of jurisdiction
    • Original jurisdiction
      • Controversy between two states, ambassadors, etc.
    • Appellate jurisdiction
      • Discretionary appellate jurisdiction to hear appeals from Courts of Appeals
      • Some mandatory appellate jurisdiction​

Publication of Opinions

All Supreme Court opinions are published (they have precedential value) and reported in hard copy reporters. There are three hard copy publishers of Supreme Court opinions.

     United States Reports

  • Official reporter of the U.S. Supreme Court
  • Published by the GPO so it usually runs several years behind
  • No editorial enhancements

     Supreme Court Reporter 

  • Part of the National Reporter System
  • Unofficial reporter published by West Publishing
  • Cases have West headnotes and Key Numbers 

     U.S. Supreme Court Reports, Lawyer's Edition

  • Unofficial reporter published by LexisNexis
  • Reporter has its own headnote and digest system
  • Two series
    • First (1790 - 1956)
    • Second (1956 - present)

Opinions are also available for free on the Supreme Court website and on commercial services such as Westlaw, Lexis, Fastcase, etc.

Citation Formats Examples

  • United States Reports300 U.S. 
  • Supreme Court Reporter - 57 S.Ct. 334
  • U.S. Supreme Court ReportsLawyer's Edition
    • First series - 81 L.Ed. 463
    • Second Series - 82 L.Ed.2d 200 

Federal Case Citations

A case citation gives you information about where to the case. In the olden golden days the citations were for print reporters but now there are citations for online services (Lexis and Westlaw) as well.

Print Reporters

Each case has a citation (sometimes more than one) with sufficient information to allow one to locate it in the print reporter where it is reported. A citation has the reporter name, volume number, and the first page of the case.

The following federal case is published in two print reporters and therefore has two citations (parallel citations). 

To find this case you would go to volume 128 of the Supreme Court Reporter (published by West) and flip to page 2783.



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