Topics on this page
- What is case law?
- Court Systems and Hierarchy
- Where can I find case law?
- Finding case law by subject
- Can I rely on case law?
What is Case Law?
Case Law is made by judges. Case law is made up of the published opinions of a court on a particular case. Opinions are written explanations of why the judges decided the case the way they did. Judges write opinions after hearing a case. Judges in the appellate courts (not trial courts) make case law.
Precedent is a legal principle or rule that was established in an opinion that a lower court must follow. Along with relevant statutes and regulations, courts rely on past case law as precedent for how they will make decisions in present and future cases. Not all case law, however, is used as precedent. A court does not have to rely on past case law to make a decision if any of the following conditions are met:
- The facts of the cases differ.
- The decision in the previous case was from a court in a different jurisdiction.
- The decision in the previous case came from a lower court.
- There is a compelling public policy reason for not following the previous decision.
An appeal is where the court hears arguments on a case after it has gone through a lower court. A case is usually appealed when the party believes a mistake was made at the trial court level.
Case law research can be complex. Reach out to a public law library for assistance. The librarian cannot conduct the research for you, but can walk you through the research process.
Court Systems and Hierarchy
Before you search for case law, you need to know about the court system for that jurisdiction, including the hierarchy of the various courts within that system. Court hierarchy determines which courts can overturn the decisions of other courts and which courts must follow another court's interpretation of the law. Trial courts are courts where cases must generally begin and the lowest courts in a court hierarchy. Appellate courts hear appeals from lower courts.
Maryland Court System
- The Supreme Court of Maryland (formerly the Court of Appeals) is the highest court.
- Below the Supreme Court, the Appellate Court of Maryland (formerly the Court of Special Appeals) is the mid-level appellate court.
- The Maryland District and Circuit Courts, are trial courts, the lowest courts in Maryland’s court hierarchy.
The court hierarchy means that if a higher Maryland court disagrees with a lower Maryland court about the meaning of Maryland law, the higher court’s interpretation is used. For example, the Appellate Court issued an opinion interpreting Section 8-213 of the Maryland Code, Real Property. A judge on the Circuit Court was later trying to interpret the same statute. The judge on the Circuit Court must follow the interpretation of the Appellate Court. On the other hand, the Supreme Court might decide that the Appellate Court interpreted the statute incorrectly. When this happens, all lower Maryland courts looking at the same statute must follow the same interpretation of the law used by Supreme Court.
Federal. The federal legal system has its own system of courts that is completely separate from the state court systems.
- The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal system.
- The Circuit Courts of Appeals are the intermediate appellate courts. There are 13 Circuit Courts. The jurisdiction of each Circuit Court can contain several states.
- The United States District Courts are the trial courts. Each state has at least one U.S. District Court. Larger states may have two or more.
All U.S. Circuit and District Courts must follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretations of federal law. All of the U.S. District Courts within a given circuit must also follow that circuit’s U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' interpretation of the law.
Where can I find case law?
Case law is published in periodicals called reporters. All federal and state court systems publish opinions in some form of reporter. A reporter publishes opinions from a limited geographical area or government unit.
Maryland Case Law. The Supreme Court (formerly the Court of Appeals) and the Appellate Court (formerly the Court of Special Appeals) decide which opinions are published. Published opinions include only about 15% of cases decided by the Appellate Court. Opinions from the trial courts are NOT published. Most public law libraries have print copies of reporters.
- Maryland Reports – This reporter publishes opinions issued by the Supreme Court of Maryland. In case law citations, the abbreviation is “Md.”
- Maryland Appellate Reports – This reporter publishes opinions issued by the Appellate Court of Maryland. In case law citations, the abbreviation is “Md. App.”
- Atlantic Reporter and Atlantic Reporter Second Series – The Atlantic Reporter publishes opinions from the appellate courts of many states, including Maryland. The same Maryland court opinions that appear in Maryland Reports and Maryland Appellate Reports also appear in Atlantic Reporter. Look up a Supreme Court of Maryland case in either the Atlantic Reporter or the Maryland Reports.
Unreported Opinions are court opinions that are not published. If you are reviewing an unreported opinion, be aware that there are rules about whether you can rely on that opinion. In Maryland, an unreported opinion of the Supreme Court of Maryland or the Appellate Court of Maryland is not precedent or persuasive authority.
Read the rule: Md. Rule 1-104
Finding Maryland Case Law with a Citation. A citation is a reference to a legal authority (e.g., statutes, regulations, cases). A citation to a Maryland case published in Maryland Appellate Reports might look like this: Kimmel v. Safeco Insurance Co., 116 Md. App. 346 (1997).
- The first part, Kimmel v. Safeco Insurance Co. is the case title. The title is usually made up of the names of the parties to the case [Kimmel v. Safeco Insurance Co., 116 Md. App. 346 (1997)].
- 116 is the volume number [Kimmel v. Safeco Insurance Co., 116 Md. App. 346 (1997)].
- Md. App. is the abbreviation of the reporter [Kimmel v. Safeco Insurance Co., 116 Md. App. 346 (1997)].
- 346 is the page number [Kimmel v. Safeco Insurance Co., 116 Md. App. 346 (1997)].
- 1997 is the year of the decision [Kimmel v. Safeco Insurance Co., 116 Md. App. 346 (1997)].
If you are looking for this citation in the print volumes of the Maryland Appellate Reports, first locate the volume with 116 on its spine. Then open up the book to page 346. The opinion will start on that page.
Finding Maryland Case Law Online. The availability of free Maryland case law online is limited. The Thurgood Marshall State Law Library has a research guide on Maryland Case Law Sources, which includes information about the appellate court opinions available on the Maryland Judiciary website.
Google Scholar is an online option. Google Scholar has Maryland appellate opinions from the 1950s to the present as well as federal cases. Learn more about how to conduct case law research using Google Scholar. Your local public law library may provide access to paid, subscription databases that include features that check whether a case is still good law. A reference librarian can show you how to use these databases.
There are paid legal research databases, such as Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg BNA, that you can use for case law research. However, the subscription costs are usually too expensive for individual researchers. Many public law libraries in Maryland will provide free, in-person access to these databases. The reference librarian can also show you how to use the database. If you are planning on conducting extensive case law research, contact your local, public law library.
Federal Case Law. All U.S. Supreme Court opinions are published in reporters. For federal Courts of Appeals, approximately 50% of cases are reported. For federal district courts, approximately 10% of cases are reported. Learn more about finding federal case law and decisions from the Library of Congress website. The Library of Congress also has a research guide with additional resources to find federal case law online, including Google Scholar.
Citators and checking for Updates. Remember, no matter how old they are, cases remain binding law until they are overruled by other cases or until the law is changed by statute or regulation. This means you can’t rely on free Maryland case law databases or print volumes of the reporters for a complete search. You have to check to make sure the opinion that you're reading remains "good law." If the opinion has been superseded, the it is no longer good law. Superseded means that the case law has been overruled by a higher court or by a new regulation or statute. For example, you may be reading a case from 2019 that is no longer good law because the legislature passed a statute in 2020 that overrules the court's interpretation of the law.
To check whether an opinion has been superseded, you will need to use a citator. A citator is a print or online service that lists cases that have cited your case since it was decided. The most popular citator service is Shepard's Citations, which is available in print and on the web. Print versions of citators can be challenging to use. A citator available through a paid, legal database is usually easier to use. Many, but not all, public law libraries have subscriptions to online citators. To learn about access and how to check if an opinion is still good law, contact your local public law library.
Finding Case Law Using Google Scholar from the Library of Congress
Finding Case Law by Subject
Below is information about 4 different ways to find case law based on the subject.
Secondary sources - read articles, books, treatises, etc., about the topic. These resources often include references to relevant case law.
- This is generally the best place to start your research.
- Look for articles or books by reputable authors who are attorneys or judges.
- Read the book and/or article carefully.
- Usually, the articles will discuss one or more cases and explain the patterns of the law applied to the cases.
- The closer that the facts in a case match your situation, the more likely the case will be helpful to you.
- The benefit of using an article/book to start your case research is that the author presumably has done some analysis and research on the topic.
- Be careful with the date of the article. You can assume that the author last did his/her research at least a month or two before the publication date. No cases since that day will be included, meaning, any cases that have been heard since the article was written which changed the law will not be reflected in the article.
- Some of the articles on the Peoples Law Library identify relevant cases. Law libraries have books and encyclopedias that talk about many other areas of law not covered here.
Look at the "annotated" version of the law. This is a good place to start if you already know the relevant statute. An annotated code is a version of the code that include annotations, which is information added by the editors. Annotations can include summaries of cases (i.e., case law), articles, and other sources that discuss that specific statute. Learn more about finding statutes.
Use a case digest. A digest is basically a subject index to case law that also gives you summaries of the cases indexed. There are different case digests for different legal jurisdictions. For example, search the Maryland Digest to find Maryland case law. If you want to find federal case law, search the Federal Practice Digest. Most public law libraries will have these digests in print as well as through subscription legal research databases.
Search by subject in a database. There are free, online databases, such as Google Scholar, as well as paid, legal research databases, which are discussed above.
Can I Rely on Case Law?
It depends. Case law represents a particular decision based on a specific set of facts and circumstances. If you are looking to apply case law to your particular legal situation, keep this in mind. It is unlikely that your case will be exactly like any other. To get the most out of case law remember the following:
- Use case law where the facts are very similar to your legal situation.
- Use case law from the jurisdiction where your case will be heard. For example, if you are going to a Maryland District Court, case law from Maryland's higher courts, such as the Court of Appeals, or the Court of Special Appeals, would be helpful. There is a chart of how the Maryland courts are organized in the Maryland Manual.
- Make sure the case law has not been superseded.