Skip to Main Content

Circuit Riders: Basic Legal Research

A guide for non-law librarians

Federal Cases

Federal courts interpret federal statutes, regulations, and the United States Constitution and hear disputes between parties from different states.

This unit on Federal Cases covers the federal court system; how federal court opinions are published; and how to find, read, and update them.

The Federal Court System

Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the U.S. Supreme Court and gave Congress the power to create lower federal courts and to determine the types of cases they hear.

  • Federal courts are responsible for interpreting federal statutes, federal regulations, and the United States Constitution, i.e., federal question jurisdiction. The U.S. Courts website lists the types of matters that federal courts hear.
  • Federal courts also apply state law in suits based on diversity jurisdiction, where the parties are citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.

In the Federal Laws and Federal Regulations sections of this guide, we used examples of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) statutes and regulations that were enacted to "ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education." Federal courts hear cases regarding the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) by virtue of their federal question jurisdiction.‚Äč

Map of the federal circuits from the U.S. Courts website.Federal Courts

Like the court system in South Carolina and most other states, there are three levels to the federal court system:

  • trial courts called district courts; 
  • courts of appeals, organized by circuits; and,
  • the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. District Courts
Federal trial courts, known as district courts, hear both civil and criminal cases. There are 94 federal judicial districts, with at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
 North Carolina has an Eastern, Middle, and Western district, while South Carolina has only one U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, organized by geographic divisions, with courthouses in most locations. 

Each district has a bankruptcy unit. There are two specialized trial courts with nationwide jurisdiction — the U.S. Court of International Trade, which hears cases involving international trade and customs issues, and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which deals with claims for damages against the United States.

U.S. Courts of Appeals
The federal district courts are divided into 13 circuits—12 regional Courts of Appeals, including the D.C. Circuit, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  Each circuit has a United States Court of Appeals that hears appeals from the district courts and federal administrative agency decisions in its circuit. Decisions from the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, along with district court decisions from North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland, are appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. 


The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals from the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

The U.S. Courts website provides a map of the federal circuits, along with links to websites for the federal district courts, circuit courts of appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The United States Supreme Court


The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the federal system. Parties who wish to appeal a decision from a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals or the highest court in a state (e.g., SC Supreme Court) may petition the U.S. Supreme Court by writ of certiorari to hear their case involving an important question of federal law or the U.S. Constitution.  The Supreme Court has discretion over which writs will be granted.

The U.S. Supreme Court receives approximately 10,000 petitions for  writ of certiorari each year and hears about 75-80 cases.


Visit the U.S. Courts website to read more about the federal court system's role and structure. 

See the Weight of Authority section in the The U.S. Legal System unit of this guide for a discussion of how to determine if a case is mandatory or persuasive for a particular court.

Federal Case Reporters

West publishes federal cases in the following reporters:

  • U.S. District (trial) court opinions in the Federal Supplement (F. Supp., F. Supp. 2d, F. Supp. 3d);
  • U.S. Courts of Appeals opinions in the Federal Reporter (F., F.2d, F.3d); and,
  • U.S. Supreme Court opinions in the Supreme Court Reporter (S.Ct.).

Federal Supplement volumes, Federal Reporter volumes, and Supreme Court Reporter volumes. .

The Government Publishing Office (GPO) publishes U.S. Supreme Court opinions in the official United States Reports (U.S.).

Volumes of U.S. Reports.


These "bound volumes" of the U.S. Reports from 1991 forward (currently 2013) are accessible online through the U.S.Supreme Court's website. Earlier volumes of the U.S. Reports dating back to volume 1 in 1754 are available online through the Library of Congress.

The law library maintains a complete print set of all federal case reporters.

Finding Federal Statutes in Print

If you have access to the United States Code (U.S.C.) or one of its annotated versions (U.S.C.A. or U.S.C.S.) in print, you can find federal statutes by:

(1) citation;
(2) popular name; 
(3) browsing the table of contents; and
(4) subject.

(1) Citation
if you know the citation to a federal statute relevant to your legal issue, you can retrieve it by going to the volume that contains that title (20) and section (1402) of the United States Code (20 U.S.C. § 1402).


(2) Popular Name
The print versions of the U.S. Code include volumes that contain Popular Names Tables for you to look up federal statutes by their short titles or popular names (e.g., Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act). 


Popular Name Table including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

(3) Table of Contents
Once you find a federal statute that addresses your legal issue, you can browse the Table of Contents for other related statutes. For example, listed above section 1402 in table of contents for Title 20 is section 1401 Definitions statute, which contains many key terms to the special education community like free appropriate public education (FAPE) and individualized education program (IEP). 

Table of Contents including code sections 10400 through 1409 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

(4) Subject
All print codes (U.S.C, U.S.C.A. and U.S.C.S.) include General Index volumes for you to browse topics and subtopics for relevant federal statutes. For example, you would find the code sections for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act listed under the topic "Special Education."

Finding Federal Cases for Free Online

Court Websites
Federal courts pro
vide several years of opinions on their websites to browse and search for free, but without editorial enhancements like case summaries and headnotes added by West and LexisNexis.  You can find a list of federal court websites on the U.S. Courts website, which includes, the U.S. Supreme Court. U.S. Courts of Appeals. U.S. District Courts, and U.S. Bankruptcy Courts..

U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court "slip" opinions are posted daily when the Court is in session (October through June or July). The slip opinions for the current term of court are available to browse on the Supreme Court's website until they are published in the bound volumes of the official United States Reports (currently volume 502 (1991) through volume 572 (2013)). 

Webpage for U.S. Supreme Court slip opinions.

U.S. Courts of Appeals

Decisions from the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina are appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  (along with N.C., Va., W.Va  & Md). The website for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals allows you to search opinions back to 1996. You can search the text of the opinions or retrieve opinions by case name, number, or date. You can also browse opinions for today, this week, and last week.

Webpage for Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Opinions.

U.S. District Courts

To access free written opinions from the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, you must create an account in the federal court's PACER system. 


Court Records page of the website for the U.S. District Court, District of SC.

Govinfo: United States Courts Opinions

Govinfo has created a collection of federal court opinions in its United States Courts Opinions database, where you can browse by court or use the Advanced search feature to search by date, citation, party name, and full-text.

 Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals opinions are available on govinfo through 2005.  Opinions from the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina have yet to be included; however, opinions from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of South Carolina through 2006 are included.

United States Courts Opinions page of the govinfo website.

U.S. Bankruptcy Courts 
The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of South Carolina also offers several years of its judicial opinions on its website to search by keyword, judge, and party name.

Judicial opinion page of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of South Carolina's website.

Google Scholar 

 Google Scholar is a search engine for state and federal cases that allows you to choose a jurisdiction or select courts to conduct a combined search. You can also limit and sort your results by date.

Google Scholar website with Case law selected.


JUSTIA's US Case Law page provides free browse-able access to many years of federal cases, including Fourth Circuit and South Carolina U.S. District Court opinions back through the 1920s. 

U.S. Case Law page of the JUSTIA website.

Finding Federal Cases Using Subscription Databases

South Carolina colleges and universities and public libraries may provide access to all federal cases through subscriptions to Westlaw or Lexis.

Some public library systems in South Carolina offer public access to Westlaw for its members. The University of South Carolina subscribes to NexisUni™ (formerly LexisNexis Academic).

With access to Westlaw or NexisUni, you can search for federal cases by citation, by party name, by keyword search and using the headnotes from one good case. Westlaw uses West topics and key numbers, while NexisUni uses Lexis headnote topics.