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Finding Court Cases

About this guide

This guide will help you find court cases in library databases and publicly available resources. If you know what kind of information you need, use the navigation menu to jump directly to it. Otherwise, scroll down to learn more about the research process for court cases.

Understanding the Court System

  • Trial Courts (Courts of First Instance) are the first level. Trial courts make determinations of law and fact in both civil and criminal cases. Juries are generally involved in these cases. Most of these cases are unpublished decisions, meaning you may need to contact the specific court in which the case was tried in order to gain access to any available transcripts of the case.
  • Circuit Courts (Courts of Appeal) >are the second level. Appellate courts examine cases for errors in the law in the records of the lower courts. Decisions are made by judges, no juries are involved.
  • Supreme Court (Court of Last Resort) is the highest appeals court. A loser in an appellate court case can appeal the case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decides which cases it will hear. It can refuse to hear a case if they feel it is without merit.

Searching for Cases

A Reporter is a collection of court decisions for a particular court or group of courts. To find a case in a Reporter, you must know its legal citation [e.g., Roe v. Wade 410 US 113 (1973)].

If you don't know the legal citation:

  • Look in a Digest, which is used to locate cases on a particular subject. (American Jurisprudence is a well-know Digest.) Digests provide summaries of and citations to cases, but do not provide access to the cases themselves. To access the cases, refer to the appropriate Reporter.
  • Search for your case by Parties or Topic in Westlaw. See images below for two searching options.

Click on Cases. Adjust jurisdiction if necessary - default is "All Federal."

Enter search terms in box at top of page.

Understanding Citations

The example citation shown here is Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 114 (1973). The citation breaks down like this:

Example Citation
Name Volume # Title  Page # Year
Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 114 1973


Note on Title Abbreviations: Standard abbreviations are used throughout case law. Some of the abbreviations you may come across in the Cofrin Library include:

  • AmJur2d = American Jurisprudence 2nd Set (in LexisNexis)
  • US = United States Reports (Remote GVP US Ju 6.8/A and online)
  • USC = United States Code (Ref GVP US Y 1.2/5 and online)
  • USTC = US Tax Cases (GVP US JU 11.7)
  • Wis = Wisconsin Reports (Ref GVP Wis Cou.1 and in LexisNexis)
  • Wis 2d = Wisconsin Reports 2nd Series (Ref GVP Wis Cou.1 2d Ser. and in LexisNexis)

A complete Table of Abbreviations is available in Black's Law Dictionary (Ref KF156 .B53 2004X).

Federal Sources

Wisconsin Sources

In general, you will not find transcripts for cases from circuit courts and lower courts.

Using Westlaw's KeyCite

KeyCite is a tool within Westlaw that will tell you if the case (or other source type) is still "good law." This means that the case has not been overturned, superseded, or become invalid for another reason - either partially or in whole. Click on the flag to go to the Negative Treatment tab, where you can see which other cases may have affected yours.

See the images below to learn what to look for within Westlaw. 

Search results list showing cases with red and yellow flags

Search for a case and look for the KeyCite flag icon.

Red flag: no longer good law; yellow flag: some negative treatment; blue-striped flag: case has been appealed

Look for these flags in Westlaw.