The US court system consists of a trial court, an appellate court, and a supreme or high court. The trial court is the first to hear the facts of a case and has original jurisdiction. The appellate court hears cases whose resolution is disputed by the losing party in the trial court. The supreme or high court hears cases whose outcome is disputed by the losing party in the appellate court. The supreme or high court chooses which cases warrant a hearing. The federal and the state court system have the same basic structure. Each consists of a trial court, an appellate court, and a supreme or high court. The Federal Court of Appeals has thirteen (13) circuits which cover most states except the District of Columbia. The federal system also has specialty courts such as the Court of Federal Claims and the United States Tax Court.
An important point to keep in mind is that all binding decisions are initiated at the highest court at either the federal or state level. These decisions are precedent only in the jurisdiction where the court presides. Stare decisis refers to the practice of the courts adhering to previously rendered decisions. This is especially true involving United States Supreme Court decisions that have binding authority on both the federal and the state courts. Remember that court decisions in the same jurisdiction only have persuasive authority which is not binding.
When a federal or a state appellate or supreme court issues an opinion that opinion is recorded in writing. The text in which the opinion is recorded is called a reporter. A reporter can be published officially or unofficially. Official reporters are those that are authorized to be published by the government. Unofficial reporters are published by private companies. Thompson West company is the primary reporter for federal and state cases. Supreme Court cases are recorded officially in the "United States Reports." Unofficially, federal cases are reported in the "Supreme Court Reporter," "United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyer's Edition," and the "United States Law Week." Advance sheets supplement the reporters with recent case information. The federal appellate court has no official reporter. Federal appellate decisions can be found in the "Federal Reporter" and prior to 1880 in "Federal Cases." The "Federal Supplement" publishes federal district court decisions. Some specialty courts publish official reporters. Courts that deal with bankruptcy, federal rules or military law (among others) have unofficial reporters. State case reporters are mostly unofficial. Most use Thompson West' s regional reporter which includes advance sheets.
Headnotes are summaries of cases setting forth principles of law. In the Thompson West system similar points of law are indicated by a key number that will match another key number to cases with similar points of law. Remember that headnotes are dicta and not precedent. Make sure you read each case if you have any uncertainty while reading the headnotes. Looseleaf materials are published for specialized areas of case law such as tax law. Looseleaf materials also contain statutory and administrative agency decisions.
A citation is the legal equivalent of a road map. Citations have a specific format. Each reporter has its own accepted abbreviation. The Association of Legal Writing Director's "ALWD Citation Manual," and "The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation" are the two main manuals for citing legal sources. LexisNexis utilizes Shepard's Citations for the purpose of reporting the most current judicial decisions. Shepard's Citations are most valuable once you have established precedent and are researching the...