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US Legal System and Sources, 14 April

On 14 April Hester Swift of the IALS took 25 CLIG members on a whistlestop tour of the key points and main sources of the American legal system. I knew much of the terminology but what this talk did was to put those words and phrases in context. It felt a bit like being given a dictionary to help unlock the meaning of a foreign text and was an enormously helpful evening. Writing this blog post is part report on the event and part consolidation for my own purposes of the links provided and the information imparted.

Hester pointed us to good free sites for finding case law and statutes. She also compared the available content on the international versions of Westlaw and Lexis. I’ve previously used a well-known search engine to find both statutes and case law without incurring charges; but have never had a fairly definitive sense of which were the official free sources and why.

Points that I found of particular interest were as follows, in no particular order.

Federal and state courts

I generally needed to stop and think about which was which and which set of courts belonged to which, Hester’ explanation of the differences made this much clearer. We were also pointed towards the US Courts website which has an explanation and a comparison of the two kinds of court and associated processes. There’s also a Federal districts map via Westlaw.com.

Citations and abbreviations

There’s always been something about US legal citations that has flummoxed me. I don’t know why. I can be perfectly at home with [2008] 3 W.L.R. 345 or [2009] EWHC 1843 (Comm) yet feel all at sea with 318 F. 2d 406 or 518 U. S. 515 (1996). (Caution: fairly hefty pdf). I suppose it’s all a matter of familiarity. And whilst Raistrick or the Cardiff Index are familiar tools to help decode new abbreviations I’d not fully explored the Bluebook or the ALWD Citation manual appendices. These appendices which are freely available give, amongst others:

  • General Abbreviations (Appendix 3)
  • Court Abbreviations (Appendix 4) 
  • Abbreviations for Legal Periodicals (Appendix 5)
  • Law reporters

    Key to understanding these abbreviations in citations and where to start looking is understanding the way US case reports at state and federal level are reported. Supreme Court case reports, the Federal Reporter and Federal Supplement now have their place in my mental map of information. These are pretty self-explanatory. State cases are sometimes covered by official state publications – although not all states have an official series; of the states that do, some official series are published by a commercial enterprise… so the waters get a little muddier her.

    This map shows the regions that West’s Regional Reporters cover as it’s apparently not always obvious which state is in which region for the purposes of these reports.

    Like the UK, cases in the lower (trial) courts are not reported, only those in the higher courts. And another caveat: most states have a Supreme Court, which is of course different from the federal Supreme Court. The National Center for State Courts provides a list of links for the States.

    Heather also pointed us in the direction of good sources for the US Constitution and US Code. She also included warnings about unfriendly websites and those which are authoritative, but perhaps don’t look so.

    I came away from the evening with a better knowledge of which freely available sources are authoritative,  a greater understanding of the structure and terminology of the US legal system and, as with all these things, a sense that I have so much more to learn…


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