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How Laws Are Made: Court Opinions

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Finding Opinions

Generally the court opinion databases are not a good place to start your research. There are just too many opinions.

Use them if:

  • Looking for a known opinion but you don't have the citation
    • Even then it helps to know the specific state or court and the date
  • Looking for unique terminology
    • Names of people, places, corporations
    • Diseases and drugs
    • Quoted material

Use the resources listed in the Researching a Legal Issue box (under LexisNexis Academic) to focus your search or use statutes and cases already identified.

Orin S. Kerr, How to Read a Legal Opinion: A Guide for New Law Students, 11 Green Bag 51 (2007)

 Elements of court opinions:

  • Case law - The body of reported court opinions and recognition that courts "make law" with their opinions; generally statutes are changed or enacted to officially codify the "case law".
  • Decision - A determination arrived at after consideration of the facts and the law; commonly used interchageably with Judgment. Basically, what is the outcome which can be as simple as 
    • Conviction overturned
    • Lower court affirmed
    • Motion for costs granted
  • Dicta/Dictum - statements, remarks, or observations of a judge expressed in the opinion
  • Holding - the legal principle which can be drawn from the opinion
  • Opinion - The court's statement of it's decision in a particular cause of action, setting out the law applied to the cause and detailing the reasons for the decision. This is the why of a decision.
  • Judgment -  final and official determination of the resolution of a dispute and rights of the parties; commonly used interchageably with Decision
  • Federal and State Cases Search
    • Select "Advanced Options"
    • Uncheck "All Federal & State Courts" 
    • Check the particular court or courts you need
    • Click "Apply"
    • Note that under the red search box "Source" indicates the specific court you are searching.

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