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Case Law: Getting Started

Types of Courts

Understanding the structure of the U.S. court system is critical for locating relevant cases. In addition to the federal courts, each state has its own state court system, but the federal and state courts all follow the same basic hierarchical structure. Cases begin in the trial courts. If appealed, the cases usually travel to the intermediate appellate court. If appealed again, they end up in the final appellate court also known as the court of last resort. Most (but not all) jurisdictions call their court of last resort the Supreme Court. The decisions from a court of last resort are binding on all the courts within its jurisdiction.

A court's jurisdiction may be based on geography (district courts at the federal level; county courts at the state level) or subject (tax or bankruptcy courts at the federal level; family, probate, or juvenile courts at the state level).

Not All Cases are Published

Remember that the vast majority of court cases are unpublished, meaning they are not available online or printed in case reporters. This is especially true of state trial court cases. If you want to read the decision of a highly publicized trial that has been reported in the news, remember that there is no published decision. There may be a court order, memoranda, or trial transcript included in the case file. You must contact the court clerk directly to find out whether you will be allowed to copy or view the file. Consult the court's website or BNA's Directory of State and Federal Courts, Judges, and Clerks to obtain the contact information for the court in question.

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