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Legal research for historians: United States: Primary Sources: Cases, Trials, and Case Law

U.S. Cases, Trials, & Case Law

Cases and case law can be a rich source of information for historians. 

For historians cases and case law can either be very easy to find, or very difficult.  Whether it will be easy or difficult depends upon the distinction between cases (by which a historian is looking for documents or information about a trial), and case law.

Case Law

“Case law” refers to the body of documents consisting of published written judicial opinions.  Judges write these opinions when there is a dispute over an issue of law in a case being litigated in his or her court room.   These opinions are then published, and then are used in other cases as precedent for other litigants to make their cases. 

However, historians are often not as interested in the law at issue in a trial as they are in facts and circumstances of the dispute and trial.  It is important to remember that case law contains judges’ opinions on issues of law, not issues of fact.  Still, the judicial opinion may contain some of the facts that led to the trial which may quite useful to historians.  However, its primary purpose is to settle a dispute of an issue of law, not report the facts of a case.

Note that most trials do not produce a written court opinion.   Most trials go from complaint to verdict (or settlement) without the judge ever having to write an opinion.

Case law is readily available in several databases, including historic case law.  Both WestlawNext Campus Research and Lexis Academic contain all published federal and state cases back to the earliest cases.  For detailed information about searching for case law, see this research guide on U.S. Case Law and/or this one.


Historians often seek to look for “cases” rather than “case law.”  By cases, usually the researcher wants to get to the documents generated as part of the litigation: transcripts of testimony, the complaint, the answer, motions and briefs, and other documentary evidence used in the case.  Historians hope to use these materials to learn about the events leading to and during a trial.  These are documents that are not found in the body of case law discussed above.

As easy as case law is to find, is as difficult these litigation documents are to find, especially for historic cases.  It is first important to note that transcripts are often not included, and not available.  Although transcripts are often made by the court reporter, he or she is a private contractor who sells the transcripts to the parties and the court.  Sometimes portions of these transcripts are included in the motions and documents that are part of the official litigation documents, but for the most part, full transcripts will not be available to researchers.  Rather these documents will consist of the complaint, the defendant’s answer, and then all the motions and briefs submitted to the court as part of the litigation.  These can be helpful to researches because they will include a lot of the facts and circumstances surrounded the case that may not be include in a court opinion, if one exists.

The litigation documents are generally considered public documents, but traditionally the only way to retrieve them was to go to the court house, request them from the clerk, and photocopy them.  This is still the primary way to get litigation documents.  Below is a list summarizing the options for locating these materials. 

  U.S. Supreme Court Cases are the exception, and the court records, including transcripts, are available.  To find case documents for U.S. Supreme Court cases, use: U. S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs 1832-1978 (Making of Modern Law Digital Archive).  For cases more recent that 1978, the court documents are available in Firestone Microforms Services, Cabinet 41Westlaw Campus also has selected U.S. Supreme Court case documents.  First look up the case, and the documents (if available) will be linked at the end of the text of the court's decision.

To find the court records beyond the U.S. Supreme Court, try the following:  

  • Newspaper Accounts:  Often newspaper accounts may be the only source available to find out what happened at a trial.  See the Library's Guide to Finding U.S Newspapers for help.
  • HeinOnline World Trials Online: Searchable trial transcripts, monographs that analyze and debate famous trials, as well as biographies of some of the greatest trial lawyers in history
  • PACER:  PACER is a database of mostly recent (from the late 1990s forward) federal court dockets and documents.  To use PACER, please contact the law librarian, David Hollander, at 

  • State Court Web Sites: Some state court web sites may contain recent documents from state court cases.

  •  National Archives:  The national archives maintains court records for federal courts.

  • Other Archives: Other university archives may contain court records for a case you need.  Contact a librarian for help.

  • Go to the Courthouse!:  Often this is the only way to get these documents.  However, for older cases, the records may have been moved fromthe courthouse to storage, or long lost.  Contact the clerk of the court before going to see if the records may be available.

Year books: law reports before the 17th century

Up to 1535, the Year Books are the primary source for the history of English law. Most are in French; a few editions include an English translation. Many have been edited and published by the Selden Society (Firestone 7890.851) or the Ames Foundation, or as part of the Rolls Series. There is an invaluable index, with case summaries and references, at

Law reports before 1865

The English reports. Abingdon, Oxon, England : Professional Books Ltd., 1986. (178 volumes)
Firestone Library (F) KD270 1220 .E5 1986
British cases decided before 1865 were first published in volumes known by the name of the reporter or the presiding judge, and known now as "nominate" reports. English reports reprinted and indexed these "nominate"' reports for the convenience of those who did not have access to the older publications. The Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations refers users to the location in English reports of reprinted nominate reports. Readers seeking the original publications should search the catalog for print, microform and digital editions.