If you already know the case citation:
Cases are identified by their citation, which looks something like this:
Miranda v. Arizona 384 U.S. 436 (1966).
If you know the citation, it is very easy to retrieve the case report from our legal database, Nexis Uni. The first screen has a box right in the center for you to type in your case citation. Type the citation carefully, do include spaces and periods.
If you know the party names, you can put those in instead of the citation, but it doesn't work as well. Many cases have the same party names, but citations are unique. You may find multiple cases coming up, and have a hard time figuring out which is the "right" one. So it's much easier if you have the citation. (party names in the example above are Miranda and Arizona).
How to find a citation if you only have the party names:
The most famous and significant cases are described in legal encyclopedias and other reference books, most of which would have a case name index in addition to a regular back-of-the-book index. So if you can find an article in one of these works about your case, it would likely give you the official citation too.
Many of these great legal resources are available online. Some are kept at the reference desk on the upper floor of the library — just come and ask to see them. Worth a look too is the useful list of Landmark Cases in Nexis Uni.
What does a case citation mean?
Most cases heard in court are legally mundane, but there are some that make new law. These important cases are recorded in "case reporters". Each case reporter is identified with a specific abbreviation - so the U.S. in Miranda v. Arizona 384 U.S. 436 (1966) indicates that the case was recorded in the U.S. Supreme Court Reporter. The numbers indicate that the case is reported in volume 384, starting on page 436.
More on case reporters is in our How to Read a Case Citation handout (PDF), including a list of abbreviations, and call numbers and locations for the reporters we have in print format here in the library.
Case reporters are also reproduced in the legal database Nexis Uni "Parallel citations" indicate that the case was recorded in more than one reporter, e.g, a case could be recorded in the government publication the U.S. Supreme Court Reporter and also in the privately published Lawyer's Edition and Federal Reporter, each of the three having quite different citations but reporting the same case.
What about famous cases that did not make new law?
Many stories we hear in the news about sensational murders or other crimes do not get recorded in case reporters, as they do not make new law. Our best source of information about these cases is often newspapers and other news sources. For these, the news section of the Nexis Uni database can be very useful.
Transcripts are word-for-word accounts of what was said in court. Stenographers record every court session using special typewriters, and readable transcriptions may later be made from those recordings. The transcripts of routine cases are not readily available from the Library - you may have to contact the court directly to get them, and will likely be asked to pay for them.
Transcripts that are readily available include the following:
Oral argument transcripts from the U.S. Supreme Court from the year 2000 to the present are available on the Supreme Court web site here
Oral recordings of U.S. Supreme Court cases are available through the Oyez project.
The Library has a collection of historic transcripts, from New York County courts, dating from 1883-1927.
Transcripts of cases that have received a lot of media attention may be found in the legal database Nexis Uni.
There are a number of ways of approaching this.
It's probably best to start off with one of the legal reference works. Generally, any overview of a topic in a legal reference work work will identify the most important relevant cases. E.g. an overview of capital punishment would be expected to identify and discuss Furman v. Georgia, Gregg v Georgia, McCleskey v Kemp, and others.
You could also look for books in the library. Entire books have been written about the more famous cases such as Brown v Board of Education. Searching the Library's OneSearch discovery tool using the party names should identify these books, e.g. Brown v Board of education. After searching, you can narrow your results with the filters on the right hand side. Or search using words describing your topic, and the words "cases" or "law" or "legal". e.g. capital punishment and cases; freedom of speech and cases; law and capital punishment.
You can search for law reviews about your topic - these will identify significant cases for you, and often discuss them in context. You can do this in the legal database Nexis Uni.
There's a legal index that is particularly helpful - the Index to Legal Periodicals. This will identify articles written in law review journals. Again, any article talking about your topic should identify and discuss relevant court cases. There is a really nice feature of this database that allows you to search for articles specifically about cases. To the right of the search box you can choose an option from a pull down menu option to search "as cases".
You can also search the legal database Nexis Uni directly for cases on a topic. This is the most direct, but often the least successful approach! Worth a look is the useful list of Landmark Cases in Nexis Uni.
For more advanced rearch, the huge multivolume American Jurisprudence is invaluable. It is shelved near the reference desk - just ask a librarian to show you where. At over 80 volumes, it is enormous, and written in quite technical legal language. Best to use the indexes at the end of the set. It is also in Nexis Uni.
There are also indexes called "digests" that list cases by topic.
Law is not static, but changes over time. New laws are passed; case law is developed. A case that was "good law" 40 years ago may no longer be considered an accurate representation of today's law. It is possible to track subsequent history of a case since it was heard. To do this in Nexis Uni, first find your case, then follow the links to Shepardize it.
The aim of this guide is to provide you with only the absolute bare essentials needed to start exploring legal information. To learn more, please do use our much longer Guide to legal resources in the Lloyd Sealy Library ... (2003).
"Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is an electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information online from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts, and the PACER Case Locator. PACER is provided by the Federal Judiciary in keeping with its commitment to providing public access to court information via a centralized service."
PACER charges a small administration fee to access individual documents. However, there are tools that that search for and retrieve many (but not all) of these public-domain PACER documents without charge, e.g. https://www.recapthelaw.org/ and http://archive.recapthelaw.org/ .