All decisions are published. There are three reporters by three publishers. Each reporter has different editorial features.
There are no “official” reports for the lower federal courts. The federal district courts are the federal trial courts and only a fraction of those decisions are published. The federal circuit courts are appellate courts, and a larger percentage of those reports are published. There are also federal courts with limited or specialized jurisdiction.
Usually some combination of a case already known to be relevant; using a citator to find additional cases on point; using a digest; using a secondary source; using an online service.
Which digest to use
Use the digest that is most relevant to the jurisdiction you wish to research. West publishes digests for individual states, for regional reporters, for federal case law, for specialized subject areas. They all work the same way.
How to use a digest
You have a case you know to be relevant
Shepardize a case you know to be relevant
Another approach to finding case law through headnotes is to Shepardize a case you know to be on point. After identifying which headnotes in that case are relevant to your research, consult the Shepards Citator for your case reporter, and search the entry for your case for other cases that involve your headnote. These case citations will have a superscript number corresponding with the relevant headnote number from your case.
If you are researching a statute
Check your statute in the annotated version of the federal code (U.S.C.A. or U.S.C.S.). The annotation to the statute will include digested headnotes to cases construing the statute. Use the topic and key number of the headnote to enter the federal digest for additional cases.
Use a secondary source
Law review articles, legal encyclopedias, and treatises on your research topic are all resources you can use to locate relevant cases. Once you have found a case or two and you have read the cases to be sure that they are relevant to your research, you can find additional cases through a digest, or through shepardizing the case you have found, as discussed above.
Using an online service
Federal case law is included in both LexisNexis and Westlaw. See Sources of Federal Case Law, above.
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