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Legal Research: A Guide to Case Law

Federal Court Decisions

Decisions issued by federal courts are printed in reporters. Reporters group cases from the same court "level" together; for example, decisions from the Supreme Court will be published together in a reporter, but that reporter will not include decisions from cases at the circuit or district level. Reporters are issued consecutively, which means that each time a new group of decisions is ready to publish, a new volume of the reporter is printed. Decisions in reporters are typically published in the order in which they were decided; for example if a volume of a reporter covers decisions published from October 1999 through June 2000, then the decisions issued in October will be in the front of the volume and the decisions issued in June will be in the back of the volume.

Federal court decisions may also be accessed via subscription databases and free online resources.

U.S. Supreme Court Reporters

United States Supreme Court decisions are available in three different print reporters (Bluebook citation abbreviations follow each title in parentheses):

  1. United States Reports (U.S.),
  2. Supreme Court Reporter (S. Ct.),
  3. United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers’ Edition (L. Ed. & L. Ed. 2d).

U.S. Supreme Court decisions are binding precedent on all other federal courts and all state courts on questions of constitutional interpretation.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Federal Reporters

Below, please find information about federal appellate court and district (trial) court reporters. All titles below link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

"Published" Federal Appeals Court Decisions

Decisions issued by U.S. circuit courts of appeals (the intermediate level of appeal in the federal system) that are selected for publication ("published") are published in the Federal Reporter. The first, second, and third series of the Federal Reporter are cited as "F.", "F.2d", and "F.3d", respectively. Published appellate court decisions are binding precedent on the district courts in that circuit.

"Unpublished" Federal Appeals Court Decisions

Decisions (from 2001 to date) issued by U.S. circuit courts of appeals that are not selected for publication in the Federal Reporter are published in the Federal Appendix. Unpublished federal appellate court decisions generally lack precedential value, but may be considered by courts as persuasive.

District Court Decisions

Occasionally, decisions issued by federal district courts (the trial court level in the federal system) are published in a reporter known as the Federal Supplement, the first and second series of which are cited as “F. Supp.” and “F. Supp. 2d”. The Federal Supplement includes both decisions selected for publication ("published") and decisions not selected for publication ("unpublished"). Neither published nor unpublished district court decisions constitute binding precedent, but may be considered by courts as persuasive, with published district court decisions being viewed by courts as more persuasive than unpublished decisions.