INTRODUCTION TO LEGAL RESEARCH
subtopics, and if any of them appears to be related to your case, the index will refer you to the appropriate title and section of the C.F.R. For example, if you are interested in parole issues, you can look under “Prisons Bureau” for the subtopic on “Parole,” which will refer you to “28 C.F.R. 572.” This means that the rules on parole in federal prisons are contained in Title 28, Part 572 of the C.F.R. You can then pull out the appropriate volume from the shelf (the title and part information is on the spine of the book), and read through Part 572 to see if there is a “section” that interests you. Note that in the C.F.R., sections are simply subtopics under each Part. For example, you would not refer to “Part 572,” but to “section 572.30.” The index to the C.F.R. is updated once every year.20
If you are in a state prison, you may want to review a copy of your state’s administrative code. The administrative code will likely have many volumes, organized by subject. A good place to begin your research is in the general index, which should be in one or more volumes shelved after the code’s main volumes. For instance, if you have a question about how much exercise time prisoners are supposed to have, you may want to begin by looking in the general index under “prisons.” In New York, the index would then refer you to the section on “correctional institutions.” Under “correctional institutions,” there are many subtopics. One of these subtopics is “exercise,” which refers you to “7 § 304.3” and “7 § 1704.6.” If you then look at Title 7, section 1704.6 of the N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs., you will find that in New York, most prisoners have the right to exercise outside of their cells for at least one hour each day. If you are using a state administrative rule or regulation in your legal papers, be sure to check whether the regulation has been recently updated or changed. Updates to state administrative code can usually be found in soft cover volumes that follow the main volumes of the administrative code.
(d) Find Relevant Cases
The bulk of your research time will be spent trying to find cases to support your arguments. In researching cases, you want to search for a case that is similar to your case. To be most useful to you, the case must have very similar facts to your case, have been decided by a court in your jurisdiction, and must not have been reversed on appeal, or overruled by a later case or statute. It also helps if the case is recent.
Sometimes you may hear about the “holding” or the “dicta” of a case. The holding is the major part of the decision in a case and usually controls only those cases with facts like the case the court decided. Dicta is all of the other things that the court says in the opinion (“dicta” is the plural; when you are talking about only one such comment, say “dictum”). For example, the holding of a case may be that you have the right to an attorney in a criminal case, and other comments that the court may make about the general role of an attorney would be dicta. You will rarely find a “perfect” case (one that matches the facts of your case exactly). Thus, your search should be for cases that have strong similarities to your case.
In addition to looking for similar cases that help you, you need to be aware of any similar cases that do not support your position. You must be prepared to explain to the judge why that contrary case should not apply to your situation or why the judge should not follow that case.21 Remember, your opponent will also be researching your case. You must be ready to respond to your opponent’s arguments and to make your own.
A law report is the written record of the decision reached by the court. The decision set out by the court is called an “opinion.” Books that contain these reports are known as “reporters.” This is where you will find case law to support your arguments.
There are three levels of courts in the federal system, and each level has a separate reporter containing the court’s decision. The Supreme Court reporter is called the United States Reports (abbreviated as “U.S.”). The circuit court (the intermediate federal appellate court) reporter is called the Federal Reporter (abbreviated as “F.,” “F.2d,” or “F.3d”). The trial court is called a district court and its reporter series is called the Federal Supplement (abbreviated as “F. Supp.” or “F. Supp. 2d”). Not all decisions of federal district courts are published. Publication is called “reporting” a decision. In New York, there are four federal district courts: the Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western Districts. Reported decisions of each of these courts are found in the F. Supp. Each reported case is found and referred to by its “citation.” The citation of a
To get updates before the new version is printed, you first have to look at the monthly “List of C.F.R. Sections
Affected” which will refer you to the appropriate section in the Federal Register. It is highly unlikely that you will have
access to these resources in prison.
See Part B(b)(2) of this Chapter for more information on precedential cases.