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Legal Research: An Overview: Courts, Case Reporters & Publication of Cases

Courts and Case Reporters

Source: Judicial Learning Center, Levels of the Federal Courts, http://judiciallearningcenter.org/levels-of-the-federal-courts/.  

As detailed above, the federal courts primarily are comprised of:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court -- The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States.  U.S. Supreme Court opinions are published in three different reporters:  (1) United States Reports (U.S.), which is the official reporter; (2) Supreme Court Reporter (S. Ct.), published by West; and (3) United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers' Edition (L. Ed., L. Ed. 2d), published by Lexis.

  • 13 Circuit Courts of Appeals -- The intermediate federal appellate courts are referred to as the circuit courts.  There are twelve regional circuit courts and one for the Federal Circuit.  Circuit court opinions are published in the Federal Reporter (F., F.2d, etc.).

  • 94 U.S. District Courts -- The federal trial courts are referred to as district courts.  Each district court comes within the jurisdiction of one of the circuit courts.  The geographic boundaries falling within in circuit court is illustrated below. District court opinions are published in the Federal Supplement (F. Supp., F. Supp. 2d, etc.).

Source:  Unites States Courts, About Federal Courts, http://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/federal-courts-public/court-website-links

For additional information about the Federal courts and court reporters, visit the Library's Federal Case Materials Checklist.

Source:  California Courts, California Judicial Branch, http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/judicial-branch-overview.pdf

As detailed above, the California courts primarily are composed of:

  • The California Supreme Court -- The California Supreme Court is the highest court in California.  California Supreme Court opinions are published in three different reporters:  (1) California Reports (Cal., Cal. 2d, etc.), which is the official reporter; (2) West's California Reporter (Cal. Rptr., Cal. Rptr. 2d, etc.), published by West; and (3) Pacific Reporter (P., P.2d, etc), which is a regional reporter published by West.

  • The California Courts of Appeal -- These are the intermediate California appellate courts.  California Court of Appeal opinions are published in three different reporters:  (1) California Appellate Reports (Cal. App., Cal. App.  2d, etc.), which is the official reporter; (2) West's California Reporter (Cal. Rptr., Cal. Rptr. 2d, etc.), published by West; and (3) Pacific Reporter (P., P.2d, etc), which is a regional reporter published by West.

  • California Superior Courts -- These are the trial courts in California.  Superior Court opinions are not published.

For additional information about California courts and court reporters, visit the Library's California Case Materials Checklist.

Published v. Unpublished Cases

Cases may be "published" or "unpublished."  Published cases are those that have been certified for publication, and unpublished cases have not been certified for publication.  Typically, the context of the case, such as which case reporter is reporting the case and/or introductory language identifying case as published or not, will allow you to determine whether any given case is published or not.

 Only a small percentage of court opinions are published.  While most, if not all, of the opinions of the federal and state supreme courts are published, less than half of intermediate appellate opinions tend to be published.   State trial court opinions are never published, and only a tiny fraction of federal trial (district) court opinions are published. 

Most courts allow citation to published opinions only.  However, there are some exceptions.  When preparing a document to be submitted to a court, it is always a good idea to check the applicable court rules to confirm whether only published cases can be cited in filings with that court.

Further information about publication of federal and California cases can be found in the Library's Federal Case Materials Checklist and California Case Materials Checklist