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Case Law refers to judicial opinions, the written decision of a judge deciding a lawsuit between two parties. Since much of the American legal system is dictated by the precedence of common law, researching case law is a critical component of legal research.
Where is Case Law Found?
- By citation: If you have a citation to a case, such as Morin v. Traveler’s Rest Hotel, Inc., 704 A2d 1085 (Pa. Super. 1997) you would find volume 704 of the Atlantic Reporter, Second Series, and turn to page 1085. For online databases, you would use the “find by citation” box, and type in the citation to retrieve the case.
- By Party Name: If you only have the party name of a case, you can use the Table of Cases volume in a West Digest set, such as the West’s Atlantic Digest 2d, West’s Pennsylvania Digest 2d, or West’s Federal Practice Digest 4th. Legal encyclopedias and practice materials often have table of selective cases, including Folk on the Delaware General Corporation Law, and Pennsylvania Law Encyclopedia. Many online databases, including Bloomberg Law, LexisAdvance and WestlawNext have a “find by party name” search box.
- By Subject: If a citation or party name for a case is unknown, a researcher can use several methods to search for a helpful case. For searching in print, the best way is to use a Digest, a collection of volumes that organizes case law by subject. For an overview of the National Reporter System, and how to locate case by subject through the West Digest System. For Delaware cases, West’s Atlantic Digest 2d should be used, and for Pennsylvania cases, the Atlantic Digest, or West’s Pennsylvania Digest 2d could be used.
The Legislative branch of government creates laws in the form of statutes which are then signed into law by the head of the executive branch. There are local, state and federal statutes. Knowing which jurisdiction your issue falls under will determine which set of statutes you should consult.
- Court Opinions often interpret statutes or determine if they are constitutional and reasonable.
- Statutes are first published chronologically as session laws. They are then codified (put into the code) into sets called Codes which are usually arranged by subject.
- In Delaware, the session laws are published in the Laws of the State of Delaware (also referred to as Delaware Laws) Once codified, they appear in the official version of the code, Delaware Code Annotated published by LexisNexis. There is also an unofficial code published by Thompson/West West’s Delaware Code Annotated.
- In Pennsylvania, session laws are published in The Laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has been working on codifying Pennsylvania statutes for several decades. In the meantime, practitioners use Purdon’s Pennsylvania Statutes, Annotated which is an unofficial version of the code. For a more detailed explanation, see the library research guide, Pennsylvania Practice Aids.
- The Federal Statutes are first published in United States Statutes at Large as public and private laws and then codified and officially published in the United States Code (USC), also available online here. Since this version is not updated as frequently as the unofficial codes, researchers will usually conduct research using either Thompson West’s United States Code Annotated (USCA) also available online through Westlaw, or Lexis’s United States Code Service (USCS), also available online through Lexis. All three versions of the code contain the same text of the statutes but the annotated versions contain additional information in the form of annotations. The annotations will give references to cases brought under that section of code or references to secondary resources.
The Executive branch of the government creates laws in the form of Administrative rules and regulations. These regulations are put forth with statutory authority by the government agency in charge of that area of law (for example the Internal Revenue Code is promulgated by the Treasury Department.) As with legislation, administrative regulations are created at the both the state and federal level.
- When federal regulations are first proposed, amended or adopted they appear in the Federal Register which is published daily in chronological order.
- After appearing in the Federal Register, the regulation will be codified (put into the code) in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR.) The CFR is arranged by subject matter in a series of titles that mirror the arrangement of the statutes in the United States Code.
- State regulations go through a similar process.
Secondary Resources are often the best place to start legal research because they contain analysis and commentary on the law. A secondary resource essentially “explains” an area of law. Secondary resources will also contain citations to applicable primary resources. Examples of secondary resources include:
- Legal encyclopedias such as the national encyclopedias American Jurisprudence or Corpus Juris Secundum. Some states also have their own state-specific legal encyclopedia, such as the Pennsylvania Law Encyclopedia.
- American Law Reports (ALR’s) are articles written primarily by legal practitioners on narrow legal subjects. ALR’s often provide analysis and citation to primary sources on both sides of a legal issue.
- Law Reviews are scholarly articles written by law professors and judges on topics that tend to be on “cutting-edge” or emerging trends in the law. Law reviews are available in print at the library, or online through HeinOnline, Bloomberg Law, LexisAdvance, or WestlawNext.
- Restatements, published by the American Law Institute are an effort to “codify” the common law in America by articulating the consensus common law rules on a variety of legal principles.
- Uniform Laws Annotated (ULA’s) are intended to serve as a model to the state legislatures of how legislation should be drafted on a variety of topics. Written by legal professionals and scholars, the ULA’s are published by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws.
- Practice aid materials are also valuable resources, such as trial or appellate practice handbooks. Consult the following research guides for information on practice aids: Pennsylvania Practice Aids and Delaware Practice Aids.
- Treatises are secondary resources that focus on one legal topic. These sources can range from one volume nutshell books like Immigration Law and Procedure in a Nutshell, to extensive multi-volume sets such as Wright and Miller’s Federal Practice and Procedure.
Electronic resources - The law library subscribes to a wide array of electronic resources to help with your research. A full list of these databases can be found here. Most can be accessed from off campus with your Widener ID card. To get off-campus access you must follow the link to the resource from the library. You will be prompted for your name and the barcode number from the back of your ID.
- CALI.org- Requires registration and the school’s access code (available at the reference desk) CALI has hundreds of interactive lessons on a variety of legal topics. Each lesson allows you to test your knowledge and receive feedback on your answers.
- BNA current awareness topics. You can sign up to receive weekly email highlights from this current awareness service. The most popular title, U.S. Law Week covers major legal highlights from across the country including a quarterly “Circuit Split” report detailing unsettled areas of law.
- HeinOnline is the best place to retrieve full text law journal articles in pdf format. In addition to the law journal collection, you will find the Federal Register Library, Code of Federal Regulations, Treaties and Agreements Library, U.S. Attorney General Opinions, U.S. Federal Legislative History Library, U.S. Presidential Library, U.S. Statutes at Large, U.S. Supreme Court Library.
- Proquest and Ebscohost are general interest databases that contain newspaper articles and many legal and non-legal resources.
- Access to Bloomberg Law, LexisAdvance, and WestlawNext is controlled by individual passwords which are given to all first year law students.