INTRODUCTION TO LEGAL RESEARCH
There are a few ways you can learn about cases that don’t appear in the federal reporters. First of all, you can read the JLM. While ordinarily you should never cite a case that you haven’t read, for some cases you may have to rely on the descriptions in this book (if, having read the rules of the court in which you are filing your claim, you decide it is acceptable to cite unpublished cases).
The West Group sells a compilation of U.S. Court of Appeals unpublished opinions called the Federal Appendix, last updated (at the time of this printing) in 2009. You could ask your library to subscribe to the Federal Appendix, but your library might not grant your request, as the 182-volume set is very expensive. You can also ask a lawyer or someone else with access to Lexis or Westlaw to print out the case and send it to you. Keep in mind that these electronic sources are expensive and lawyers who assist pro se prisoners may not have the resources to respond to such requests.
Finally, some federal courts will send prisoners copies of unreported cases, upon request and for a fee; others will not. Send your request to the clerk of the court in which the case was decided. You could also try writing a letter to the chambers of the judge who wrote the opinion and request a copy. In both instances, be sure you include the case name, the docket number (for example, “No. 12 345 67”), the court, and the date of the decision you are requesting. All of this information should be available in the JLM citation. If you can tell which decision you are looking for (e.g., the summary judgment motion, the motion to dismiss, or the motion to set aside the jury verdict, etc.), indicate that as well.25
Citations will be discussed further in Part D of this chapter. However, here is a short example of a citation: Mukmuk v. Comm’r, 369 F. Supp. 245 (S.D.N.Y. 1974). The italicized portions of the citation are the parties involved in the case. (Comm’r is the accepted abbreviation for “Commissioner.”) The first number (369) is the volume number of the reporter, which appears on the spine of the book. “F. Supp.” identifies the Federal Supplement reporter. The second number (245) is the page in the 369th volume of the Federal Supplement where the case of Mukmuk v. Comm’r begins (the 245th page). The information in parentheses refers to the court in which the case was decided (S.D.N.Y. is the accepted abbreviation for the Southern District Court of New York) and the year in which the case was decided (1974). Thus, if you need to refer to this case in your legal papers, you should use the citation listed above. In your research, you will come across many similar citations, or variations of such citations. You can use a citation to find the text of the case by following the procedure explained in this paragraph. A fuller explanation of citations is provided in Part D
and Appendix A of this Chapter. The second level of courts in the federal system is called the circuit court of appeals.26
There are twelve
such circuits in the United States.27 Circuit courts are the intermediate appellate courts in the federal system. Reports of all circuit court decisions are found in the Federal Reporter (abbreviated as “F.”, “F.2d” or “F.3d”). The Federal Reporter has three series of reporters (so the volume numbers do not get too high within each series) with volumes individually numbered within each series. Each circuit court of appeals covers the appeals from several federal district courts. For example, cases from the four New York federal district courts plus the district courts of Connecticut and Vermont are appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (abbreviated “2d Cir.”). Thus the case United States v. Bush, 47 F.3d 511 (2d Cir. 1995) is a 1995 case from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found on page 511 of volume 47 of the Federal Reporter (Third Series).
The third and highest level of the federal court system is the United States Supreme Court. There is only one U.S. Supreme Court. In addition to hearing cases from lower federal courts, the Supreme Court can also hear certain cases from state high courts. All U.S. Supreme Court decisions are reported in the “official” reporter, United States Reports (abbreviated as “U.S.”). Decisions of the Supreme Court are also reported in two “unofficial” reporters, the Supreme Court Reporter (abbreviated as “S. Ct.”) and the United States
unpublished opinions from another circuit court decided prior to Jan. 1, 2007 if that particular court’s rules allow it. D.C. Cir. R. 32.1 (“All unpublished orders or judgments of this court, including explanatory memoranda (but not including sealed dispositions), entered on or after January 1, 2002, may be cited as precedent … [U]npublished dispositions of other courts of appeals entered before January 1, 2007, may be cited only under the circumstances and for the purposes permitted by the court issuing the disposition …”).
You can sometimes tell what motion the decision relates to by the parenthetical explanation that follows the
citation. For example, if a case citation has a parenthetical explanation that where …),” the decision you are looking for decided the motion to dismiss.
When a losing party is not satisfied with
bringing the case before the circuit court for review.
See Part B of this Chapter for a discussion of the Circuit Courts of Appeals.