Before you search for case law, you need to know a little about the court system for that jurisdiction. Most importantly, you need to know the hierarchy of the various courts within that system (that is, which courts can overturn the decisions of other courts) and which case reporters publish the opinions from those courts. Not all decisions are published.
In Maryland, the highest court is called the Court of Appeals (1776 to date). Below the Court of Appeals is a mid-level appellate court called the Court of Special Appeals (1967 to date). The Maryland District and Circuit Courts, are trial courts, the lowest courts in Maryland’s court hierarchy.
- "Trial courts" are the courts where cases must begin.
- The "appellate courts" hear appeals from other courts.
An appeal is where the court hears arguments on a case after it has gone through a lower court (most commonly the District or Circuit Court).
- A case is usually appealed when the party believes a mistake was made at the trial court level.
- 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 Court of Special Appeals 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 would have to follow the interpretation of the Court of Special Appeals. On the other hand, the Court of Appeals might decide that the Court of Special Appeals 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 Court of Appeals.
In Maryland, only selected cases decided by the two appeals courts are published. Decision from the trial courts are not published at all. The published decisions include only about 15% of cases decided by the Court of Special Appeals. Those appellate opinions that are published appear in the following books called "reporters":
- Maryland Reports – This reporter publishes opinions issued by the Maryland Court of Appeals. In case law citations, the abbreviation for Maryland Reports is simply “Md.”
- Maryland Appellate Reports – This reporter publishes opinions issued by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. In case law citations, the abbreviation for Maryland Appellate Reports is “Md. App.”
- Atlantic Reporter and Atlantic Reporter Second Series – The Atlantic Reporter, now in its second edition or “series,” publishes opinions from the appellate courts of many states, including Maryland. In case law citations, the abbreviation for the first series of Atlantic Reporter is just “A.”, while the abbreviation for the second series is “A.2d”. The same Maryland court opinions that appear in Maryland Reports and Maryland Appellate Reports also appear in Atlantic Reporter. It is only necessary to look a Maryland Court of Appeals case up in either the Atlantic Reporter or in the Maryland Reports. You wouldn’t need to the same case up in both places.
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.
- 116 is the volume number
- Md. App. is the abbreviation of the reporter
- 346 is the page number
- 1997 is the year of the decision
Or, a citation to the same case published in the Atlantic Reporter, Second Series would look like this:
- Kimmel v. Safeco Insurance Co., 696 A. 2d 482 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1997)
- The first part, Kimmel v. Safeco Insurance Co. is the case title.
- 696 is the volume number
- A. 2d is the abbreviation of the reporter
- 482 is the page number
- Md. Ct. Spec. App is the court
- 1997 is the year of the decision
Tips on using the on-line databases and paper source tools
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 another online option and has Maryland appellate opinions from the 1950s. Learn more about how to conduct case law research using Google Scholar.
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. Therefore, you can’t rely on free Maryland case law databases for a complete search. You can go to your local public law library and search their subscription case law databases. A reference librarian can show you how.
If you prefer researching in print, most public law libraries also subscribe to the Maryland Digest, which is a print subject index to Maryland case law.