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Case Law (or Common Law)

When your legal research involves case law (or common law), it is important to know something about the significance of precedents or the doctrine of stare decisis, which refers to “adhering to or abiding by” settled decisions. Simply put, lower courts are bound to follow decisions of higher courts in the same jurisdiction. For example, a federal district court in Maryland is required to follow the decisions of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, but it is not bound by the decisions of other district courts or by the Maryland state courts. Historically, this doctrine has hindered women in the courts, because once a precedent has been set, it is difficult to receive a different ruling unless the law that the judges or justices are interpreting is itself changed. Recently, however, stare decisis has been one of the major reasons that women have won cases concerning employment in the courts. Many precedents based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 favor women.

State legal materials resemble federal legal materials in many ways, but there are differences in the types of publications in which they are readily available. The nature of legal materials and publishing practices may differ depending on jurisdiction. Resources on the federal level are easier to obtain because materials are published by both private and government publishers. U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) publications are readily available in government depository collections in libraries across the United States. Each state, however, follows its own publishing practices.

Differences are especially significant in the publication of court decisions. Many decisions regarding women's issues have been rendered on the trial level in state courts, and few state trial court decisions are published, because they do not establish legal precedent. Other cases, such as some civil suits, are settled out of court, and there is no official publication of the proceedings or the terms of the settlement. Further, attempting to trace a particular piece of state legislation to its origin in colonial times can be difficult because of imprecise terminology and inconsistent publishing practices.

Court Systems

Court systems vary depending on whether they are federal or state. All court systems have two major levels: a trial court (district court) and a court of last resort (supreme court). Some have an immediate appeals court (court of appeals). The court system may also include various special courts that have limited jurisdiction. The federal system has three levels (district courts, courts of appeal, and a supreme court), whereas the District of Columbia, for example, has only two (the Superior Court and the Court of Appeals).

A suit is initiated in a trial court. If someone chooses not to accept the decision of the judge and jury, he or she can file an appeal in the immediate court of appeals. This court will affirm (support) the trial court's decision or reverse it. That decision can then be appealed to the court of last resort. Unlike the immediate court of appeal, to which citizens have a right to appeal, the court of last resort must be petitioned. The judges or justices determine whether or not they will hear the appeal. A state supreme court decision can be appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Decisions rendered by judicial bodies are published in reporters (or reports), which vary in type. Again, it is important to remember that not all judicial opinions are published. There are reporters for all levels of federal courts, and virtually all of the opinions of the state courts of last resort are published. State immediate appellate court decisions are generally published. State trial court opinions, however, are rarely reported, but New York (in its Miscellaneous Reports) and Pennsylvania (in the Pennsylvania District and County Reports) do publish such decisions selectively. Most other state court decisions and any trial transcripts must be obtained through the clerk of the court in the specific jurisdiction where the trial was held.

Court records and briefs can be used to get background information on a specific court opinion. The Law Library of Congress has records and briefs for most U.S. Supreme Court opinions from 1832 to the present in both print and microfiche, as well as the privately published Landmark Briefs and Arguments of the Supreme Court of the United States: Constitutional Law.5

Digest Systems for Finding Court Decisions

Because court reporters are arranged chronologically, digest systems must be used to find court decisions by subject. Each of the major legal publishing firms has its own digest system. The most widely used of these is the American Digest System created by West Publishing Company.6 This standard system of subjects and topic areas is used in all of the company's digests, including digests for each jurisdiction and various subject digests, such as the Merit System Protection Board Digest. In addition, table-of-cases volumes can be used when the parties to litigation are known but the legal citation is not.

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