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Finding Federal Case Law

The federal legal system has its own system of courts that is completely separate from the state court systems.

  • Not surprisingly, the highest court in the federal system is called the United States Supreme Court.
  • The intermediate appellate courts are called the United States Circuit Courts of Appeals,
  • The trial courts are called the United States District Courts. Several states are contained within the jurisdiction of each U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Each state has at least one U.S. District Court, and larger states may have two or more.

All of the U.S. Circuit and District Courts have to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretations of federal law. All of the U.S. District Courts within a given circuit must also follow the federal law interpretations of that circuit’s U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, unless the Supreme Court interprets the law differently. Maryland is in the Fourth Circuit, so the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland must follow the federal law as interpreted by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, unless the Supreme Court disagrees with a Fourth Circuit interpretation.

Court Opinions are published in... Percent of Opinions that are Published
U.S. Supreme Court
  •   United States Reports (abbreviated “U.S.”),
  •   the Supreme Court Reporter (abbreviated “S. Ct.”), and
  •   Lawyer’s Edition (abbreviated “L. Ed.”).
100%
U.S. Court of Appeals Federal Reporter, which is now in its third series. (Abbreviations for
each series: First – “F.”; Second – “F.2d”; Third – “F.3d”.)
50%
U.S. District Courts Federal Supplement, which is now in its second series (abbreviations “F. Supp.” And “F. Supp. 2d”) 10%

A citation to a federal case from the Fourth Circuit might look like this:

  • United States v. Williams, 152 F. 3d 294 (4th Cir. 1998) 
    • United States v. Williams is the case name
    • 152 is the reporter volume
    • F. 3d is the reporter name abbreviation
    • 294 is the page number
    • 4th Cir. is the court abbreviation
    • 1998 is the decision year

Finding Federal Case Law:
Unfortunately, the free case law databases for the U.S. Circuit and District Courts, only have cases dating back a few years. No matter how old they are, cases remain binding law until they are overruled by other cases or until the law is changed by statute or regulation. Therefore, you can’t rely on free Federal case law databases for a complete search. You can go to your local public law library and search their subscription case law databases; a reference librarian can show you how. Or if you prefer print, you can search their Federal Practice Digest, which is a subject index to federal case law.

Source: 
This section developed by Sara Kelley, Librarian, Georgetown University Law Library, updated by the State Law Library staff.
Is this legal advice?

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