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Circuit Riders: Finding Federal Cases

Basic Legal Research Guide

Finding Federal Cases in Print

West publishes federal cases in chronological order in federal reporters. It also publishes the Federal Practice Digest to help you find the cases published in the federal reporters. If you have access to print reporters and digests, there are five key methods for finding federal cases in print:

1. by citation;
2. by party name;

3. by words or phrase;

4. by subject using an index; and

5. by West Topics & Key Numbers

Volume 670 of the Federal 3d reporters.1. Citation‚Äč

The easiest way to locate a federal court opinion is by citation.

You may have the cite to a relevant case because someone gave it to you; you found it cited in another case; you found it cited in a secondary source; or you found it referenced in the annotations to a federal statute.

Case citations contain the case name, volume, reporter, and page number where the case begins. For example you can find the United States Supreme Court opinion below in volume 137, page 988 of the Supreme Court Reporter. The official United States Reports (U.S) has yet to be published.

Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, 137 S. Ct. 988 (2017).
Endrew F. is a special education case brought in federal court under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) (See the Federal Laws section). Endrew's last name is not included because he is a minor. The term ex rel. means that the case was brought against the school district on Endrew's behalf by his parents.

2. Party Name

You may know the name of a federal case, but not it's citation. If you are using print resources, you can find a federal case by party name using the Table of Cases volumes of the Federal Practice Digest where case citations are listed alphabetically by both the name of the plaintiff (Endrew F.) and the name of the defendant (Douglas County School District RE-1). 

3. Word or Phrase

The Federal Practice Digest also includes Words and Phrases volumes that list words and phrases alphabetically, along with citations and summaries (called headnotes) from federal cases interpreting their meaning or application. For example, in the Endrew F. case cited above, the United States Supreme Court held that for a school to provide a "free appropriate public education," as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), it "must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances." (p. 999). IEP is short for "individualized education program." You may find Endrew F., along with other federal cases listed in the Words and Phrases volumes of the Federal Practice Digest under the phrase "free appropriate public education," "individualized education program," or both.

4. Subject Using an Index

West adds headnotes to the beginning of each case published in its federal reporters  (see the R.F v. Cecil County Public Schools case below).  Headnotes are short summaries of the issues in a case, which West assigns topics and key numbers (subtopics). West then publishes these headnotes by topic and key number in the Federal Practice Digest. 

The Federal Practice Digest includes Descriptive Word Index volumes to help you find cases by topic and subtopic. Under the topic "Education" in the Descriptive Word Index to the Federal Practice Digest you will find key number 863 for the subtopic "free appropriate public education" and key number 862 for the subtopic "individualized education program." 

In the digest volume that contains the topic Education, key numbers 862 and 863 you will find headnotes with citations to federal cases like Endrew F.  and R.F v. Cecil County Public Schools  listed by jurisdiction (Supreme Court, Courts of Appeals, District Courts). Endrew F. is a U.S. Supreme Court case. R.F. is a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case.

5. West Topics & Key Numbers

In addition to using the Descriptive Word Index, you may also use the headnotes in one good case to find West Topics & Key Numbers assigned to your legal issues. You may find a case cited in an article or book, the annotations to a statute, or in another case.  Once you identify a topic and key number from that case, you can go directly to that topic and key number in the Federal Practice Digest to find more cases on that issue.

For example, in the R.F v. Cecil County Public Schools case below, headnote number 1 is assigned the topic Education and the key number 862.  Headnote number 1 describes the purpose of  an individualized education program (IEP) in providing a free appropriate public education (FAPE) as follows:

The mechanism by which a state provides a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to a disabled student under IDEA is an “individualized education program (IEP),” which is a document that describes the child’s unique needs and the state’s plan for meeting those needs.

To read more federal cases about the purpose of an IEP for students with disabilities, you can consult the Federal Practice Digest under the topic Education, key number 862.

First page showing headnote number 1 in the R.F. v. Cecil County Public Schools case.

Finding Federal Cases for Free Online

Court Websites
Federal courts provide 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 LexisNexis.

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 LexisNexis headnote topics.