A judicial opinion, decision, or case is a written opinion of a court, ruling on one or more issues of a particular lawsuit. These opinions are called case law. Often, they interpret the laws created by the legislature, which is why you may need to read them. Even if your state laws address a particular topic, the language of the law may not give you a clear-cut answer to your question. If you find a particular statute that looks as if it will help you, it's always helpful to know how courts have actually interpreted the law.
You may need to read a judicial decision for another reason, too. Although most common small claims court issues are addressed either by local law or state statute, some issues are governed entirely by the courts. When there are no state statutes or local ordinances to help you, you may find help in what's called the "common law." The common law is the body of law that is entirely developed by the courts through their written decisions.
Finding Cases on the Internet
Unfortunately, the full text of many judicial decisions is not available online unless you're able to pay a (usually reasonable) fee.
Free Research Sites
The best free resource for finding state cases online is FindLaw (www .findlaw.com). Even FindLaw, however, has cases from only a small number of states, and it only has cases published since September 1990. FindLaw's database consists of case summaries, not the text of the actual decision. However, a FindLaw search may give you the names and citations of cases you want to read, and you can then use another resource (a fee-based website or your local law library) to read the entire case.
FindLaw allows you to search by state and by topic (including property law), or you can search the text of FindLaw's summaries for keywords of your choosing.
Another free resource for finding cases online is the court website for your state. Most state courts have their current or recent cases available online free of charge, but often you'll only find cases decided in the past two to 12 months. Another limitation is that most court websites allow searches only by party name; keyword or topical searches are not usually available.
The best way to find your state's court website is to use one of the following sites, which provide direct links to state cases:
- Cornell Legal Information Institute (www.law.cornell.edu), and
- FindLaw (www.findlaw.com).
Fee-Based Research Sites
If you can't find what you need for free, you'll need to try a site that charges for access to cases. A good place to start is VersusLaw, a fee-based system for finding both current and past (archived) state and federal cases. VersusLaw (www.versuslaw.com) offers state and federal court opinions that range from the most recent to those decided 75 years ago.
Other fee-based legal research sites include Westlaw (www.westlaw .com) and LexisNexis (www.lexis.com).
Finding Cases in the Library
Even if you start your legal research on the Internet, you may find yourself needing a law library, especially if you're looking for case law and are unable or unwilling to pay a fee for searching. In the law library, you can read the full text of court cases once you know the citation (see "Understanding Case Citations," above), or use reference materials to find cases on particular subjects.
Ask the librarian to point you to some reference books or to a general legal encyclopedia. These books can give you background information and may also mention cases that will bear on your situation.
Legal encyclopedias. Some states have their own; if yours doesn't, use a national one, such as American Jurisprudence (called "Am. Jur." for short). Like regular encyclopedias, these books are arranged alphabetically by topic. The encyclopedia articles discuss how courts have ruled in actual court cases.
Some encyclopedias have more than one series; you want the most recent. For instance, the current series of Am. Jur. is Am. Jur. 2d. Also be sure to check the back of the books (called pocket parts) for more recent updates.
Figure 4 shows a page from Am. Jur. 2d, discussing uncertain boundary lines–in this example, neighbors setting a boundary by building a fence. You can see the short summaries of court decisions that follow each issue that is raised. Let's look at the different sections of the page:
- 1 the volume you're currently reading
- 2 the topic
- 3 the section number within that topic
- 4 the name of the section
- 5 explanatory text
- 6 citation to a relevant case
- 7 the page number, and
- 8 a cross-reference to A.L.R., a set of volumes whose full name is American Law Reports, where you'll find another article about this topic.
American Law Reports is another national compilation of court decisions, books, and published articles concerning all areas of the law. A.L.R. also comes in several series–the 6th is the latest–and has updated material in the back. A.L.R. has separate index volumes that list the topics in alphabetical order.
Reading a Case
A court case contains a lot of information before you even get to the court's actual opinion. Let's look at an example. You find a case that says that a neighbor was not able to collect money for damage caused by a neighbor's healthy tree. The case is Turner vs. Coppola, 102 Misc. 2d 1043, 424 N.Y.S.2d 864 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1980). Figure 5 shows a copy of this page. Let's look in depth at what you see there:
- 1 the name and volume of the reporter (collection of cases) you're reading
- 2 the page number
- 3 the official citation for the case
- 4 the name of the case
- 5 the name of the court
- 6 the date the opinion was decided
- 7 a summary of the case, including what this court ruled, and
- 8 a topic and key number.
The West Publishing Company has given thousands of discrete issues of law their own "key numbers," ordered under topic headings. The topic and key number of a particular rule can be used to find other cases on the same point.
All published cases begin with this kind of introductory information. Once you have gone over the introduction, it is time to read the opinion itself. Never depend on what a reference book, or even the case summary, tells you an opinion says. The people doing the research for these books are only human, and occasionally summaries are very misleading.
Make Sure the Case Is Still Valid
Once you've located a case that addresses the issue you're interested in, you'll want to make sure the case is still valid (that is, hasn't been overturned or reversed by another court decision) before you use the case in your small claims dispute. You can make sure a case is still good law by using an online service called KeyCite, which is available from Westlaw (www.westlaw.com) for a fee. You also get a complete list of all cases that refer to the case, which may lead you to additional cases on the subject you're interested in.
You can check a case's validity using books in the law library–it's an arcane process called Shepardizing. For instructions, see Nolo's book Legal Research: How to Find & Understand the Law, by Stephen Elias and Susan Levinkind.