Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Using the Law Library: A Guide for Educators-Part II: Deciphering Citations & Other Ways of Locating Court Opinions

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Using the Law Library: A Guide for Educators-Part II: Deciphering Citations & Other Ways of Locating Court Opinions

Article excerpt



This, the second of six articles, explains the various ways of locating judicial opinions by citation and name. All of the major variations of citation formats are identified and discussed, as are the most reliable methods of locating judicial opinions when the researcher has only the name of the case or the name of one of the parties.


One of the most common requests that law librarians receive from educators is for assistance in locating legal materials referenced in another source, usually a newspaper, journal article, or some type of secondary legal source. This article will provide a guide to all of the ways of locating a particular judicial decision for those who deal with legal materials on an infrequent basis.

Typically, a researcher knows one of two things about the particular legal document in which he or she is interested: a full or partial citation or the name of the particular case.1 In some instances, the researcher has been referred to a legal document from a journal or other academic resource. These resources usually identify a given case using some sort of standard citation format. Legal journals and other legal secondary sources typically have one type of citation format, while journals from other disciplines, including education, often use a slightly different format for citing cases. Whatever the citation format used, there is usually enough information to locate the referenced material. Sometimes how-ever, the researcher will be directed to a case through a non-academic source such as a newspaper, online news or information service, or even a radio or TV program. Typically, if a reference to a court decision comes from one of these sources, the case is identified only by its name.2 The sources may also occasionally refer to judicial opinions that are unpublished. For the researcher, locating a judicial decision with just a name can be more challenging, but it is not an impossible task. With a basic knowledge of the tools for locating legal materials, any researcher can locate a particular case provided the case is a published opinion. Only a small portion of all cases are actually published.3


As in any other discipline, the easiest way to locate legal information is through the use of its citation. While most other disciplines, including education, use one of the generally accepted academic citation formats such as Turabian format, the Modern Library Association format, the American Psychological Association format, or the Chicago Manual of Style, law has its own special method of citation. The really tricky thing about legal citations is that the style of citation may vary considerably depending on the source of the citation. There is no universally accepted manual of citations for the legal field;4 however, three widely accepted manuals currently provide guidance for legal citation. The most commonly accepted of these manuals is the Harvard Law Review Association's The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation.5 The Bluebook, as it is commonly known, first appeared in 1926 and is currently in its seventeenth edition. The other print citation manual that has been gaining acceptance in the legal community is the ALWD (Association of Legal Writing Directors) Citation Manual,6 which appeared in 2000. While many of the rules are the same in both manuals, law students and others who use the ALWD Manual find it easier to use than the Bluebook. Almost half of the law schools in the United States have switched to the ALWD Manual since it was released.7 The good news is that for the most part, both manuals are very similar in their guidelines. The third and final citation manual, the American Association of Law Libraries' Universal Citation Guide8 is available only on the Internet and uses a slightly different format. This citation format is limited to use in court systems9 and has not yet found its way into academic usage. …

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