The Judiciary: Courts and Case Law

Judicial decisions constitute one of the most important sources of legal authority, along with legislative and regulatory enactments, in our common law system. Even statutes must be read in conjunction with case law which construe the correct application of the legislation. Courts follow the doctrine of precedent, or stare decisis ("let the decision stand"), to create and build upon holdings of law so as to ensure that people in like circumstances of fact are treated alike.

Published court reports provide a permanent record of judicial opinions and provide an easily cited source. The U.S. Department of the Interior Library provides access to judicial decisions by means of a variety of print and electronic search tools. LEXIS and Westlaw are available for departmental research; the Internet provides access to many sources for free. Consult with a Reference Librarian for assistance in locating case law. The text below describes the structure of the American judiciary and its publications.

United States Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court stands at the head of the judicial branch of government, and it sits as the court of last resort in the Federal court system. Only a small fraction of the cases in which Supreme Court review is sought are accepted for hearing and result in a judicial opinion.

HeinOnline’s U.S. Supreme Court Library offers the official opinions of the Supreme Court from the United States Reports (1754-2003), as well as United States Reports Preliminary Prints (2002-2006), and United States Reports Slip Opinions (2002-date). It also features the Guide to the Early Reports of the Supreme Court of the United States (1790-1874), the Supreme Court Economic Review (1982-2001), and the Supreme Court Review (1960-2000).

The Interior Library maintains two sets of case reporters for U.S. Supreme Court decisions, digests which assist the location of Supreme Court decisions by topic and one topical, loose-leaf service which indexes current Supreme Court cases and issues and provides the first print version of Supreme Court decisions.


  • United States Supreme Court Reports
  • Supreme Court Reporter

Digests (Also help to locate all Federal District and Circuit Court decisions):

  • Federal Digest
  • Modern Federal Practice Digest 
  • Federal Practice Digest 2d 
  • Federal Practice Digest 3d 
  • Federal Practice Digest 4th

Topical Looseleaf Service:

  • BNA, U.S. Law Week

United States Courts of Appeal and United States District Courts

The Federal court system has grown extensively from the thirteen District Courts and three Circuit Courts created by the Judiciary Act of 1789. The general trial courts in the federal system are still known as the United States District courts, but there are now ninety-four districts with one or more in each state. In addition, there are several specialized trial courts, such as the Bankruptcy Courts and the Court of Federal Claims.

The intermediate appellate courts in the federal system are the United States Courts of Appeal, which are divide into thirteen circuits. Each of the First through Eleventh Circuits covers several states. The Federal Circuit, which handles patent and customs matters, and the District of Columbia Circuit comprise the remaining circuits.

The Interior Library maintains a variety of holdings in print, microfiche and CD-ROM to provide access to Federal case law as follows:

  • Federal Cases (District and Circuit Courts, 1789-1880; on microfiche)
  • Federal Reporter (District and Circuit Courts, 1880-1932, Circuit Courts, 1932-date; print and CD-ROM; 1st series and 2nd series, volumes 1-450, on microfiche)
  • Federal Supplement (District Courts, 1932-date; print and CD-ROM; volumes 1-200 on microfiche)
  • Federal Rules Decisions (District Court cases resolving issues under Federal Rules, e.g., FRCP and FRE; print)

State Cases: the National Reporter System

Appellate decisions from the state Supreme Courts and intermediate appellate courts have been collected and published by the West Group (formerly West Publishing) in a set of regional reporters called the National Reporter System. The National Reporter System divides the states into seven regions as described in the table below. The seven regional reporter sets are supplemented by separate reporters for the two most litigious states, California Reporter and New York Supplement.

The table below reflects the states covered by each regional reporter. The complete sets of these reporters are available on CD-ROM in the Library.

Reporter   Abbreviation  States Courts Included
Atlantic Reporter  A.; A.2d Supreme and intermediate appellate courts in D.C., Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island 
Northeastern Reporter N.E.; N.E.2d Court of Appeals in New York and Supreme Court and intermediate appellate courts in Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts and Ohio
Northwestern Reporter N.W.; N.W.2d Supreme and intermediate appellate courts in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin
Pacific Reporter P.; P.2d Supreme and intermediate appellate courts in Alaska, Arizona, California (Sup. Ct. only since 1960), Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming
Southeastern Reporter S.E.; S.E.2d Supreme and intermediate appellate courts in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia
Southern Reporter So.; So.2d Supreme and intermediate appellate courts in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi
Southwestern Reporter S.W.; S.W.2d Supreme and intermediate appellate courts in Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas
California Reporter Cal. Rptr.; Cal. Rptr.2d Supreme and intermediate appellate courts of California


Updated October 2021

Was this page helpful?

Please provide a comment