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10 hour law school

10hour lawschool




Part 2 The Big Seven: Case Law, Statutes, Jurisprudences, ALR Annotations, Administrative Agency Regulations, and Digests

Q: How do I identify a set of books that contains case law?


A: The methods a court uses in the creation of case law have been described as being similar to the making of hot-dogs. You may like the end result but you most definitely do not want to see how they are made. The books that contain case law can be identified by the words "reporter," "reports," or "decisions" (i.e. Wisconsin Reports, Northwest Reporter, Americans with Disabilities Decisions) on the cover and spine of the individual volumes. The name "reporter" is derived from the fact that there is a court reporter who has the job of making sure that the opinions of the court get published (or reported). This person’s official title is often called "The Reporter of Decisions."


Q: How does a judge’s written opinion for a case end up in one of our sets of case reporters?

A: A court opinion follows a three step assembly line type process (truth be told, some publishers have as many as 26 steps, but hey, who's counting) before arriving at its final destination in the bound volumes. Think of a bound volume as being like a cemetery. Lots of stuff goes in and nothing ever leaves. It is important to pay attention to the three steps in the process because there is a print publication that attaches to each step and the information is divided on the CD-ROM disc in a similar fashion.


A judge makes up his mind on the outcome of a case that is before him. This process usually involves a dart board, bar dice, and a bottle of tequila. He will then ask his clerk to flesh out a summary of all the claims made in a case, how the judge is going to rule on each, and the law that supports the judge’s decision (which is very often none). Between the judge, the clerk, and the tequila, a final draft of the opinion will be crafted (remember the law is an art form). Then, if the judge chooses, he may "recommend the opinion for publication" (not all opinions written by a judge get recommended for publication. Only those opinions that are legally significant (i.e. have something worth saying) get published. Each opinion comes out to the public one at a time typed on slips or sheets of paper, thus the name "slip opinion." All of the information contained in a slip opinion is public domain (there is such a thing as a free lunch).


The second step in the process is the creation of the "advance sheets." An advance sheet is nothing more than a collection of two or three weeks of slip opinions gathered up by our editorial staff and put into cute little books the size of a Reader’s Digest issue. Some publishers, depending on the publication, will do some additional sorting and arranging of the opinions. Two very, very important things happen at the advance sheet stage: (1) The "cite" is "attached" or created for the case (see below for a more detailed discussion of "what is a cite?") and (2) the "headnotes" are added to the beginning or the "head" of the case. Headnotes are nothing more than summaries of important points talked about in the opinion.

Lastly, we take three advance sheets and put a pretty cover on them and call it a "bound volume" and resell the exact same information to their customers. This, apparently, is perfectly legal and no one complains. This is very much like trading in your car and having the dealer repaint it and then sell it back to you again. The only question that comes to my mind is, "would you like that in red or yellow?"


  • 5 Minute Law School Summary: A judge writes an opinion ---------> Slip opinion (This is the first place the case appears to the public) ---------> Advance sheets (the case gets its permanent "cite" attached and headnotes are created at this stage) ---------> Bound Volume ---------> 1-800-collect-dust

Q: What is a "case cite" or "citation"?

A: A "case cite" is the permanent location of a court opinion in a set of books. The pattern for most cites is: (Volume #) (Abbreviation of the set of books where the case is located) (The page number the case starts on) For example:


47 Wis. 2d 396

This case would be located in Volume 47 of the Wisconsin Reports (second series) and the case starts on page 396.

  • Case Law Factoid: Did you know that there are more than 4 million printed judicial opinions?

Warning: Reading further might cause severe brain damage.

Q: What is a "parallel cite(s)"?


A: There are many legal publishers. Each one of these publishers is trying to make money off the same public domain information. (This situation is not much different than your average daily newspapers around the United States which all report nearly identical news every day). Each legal publisher will publish a set of books that contains all the cases for a given state. The only thing that will vary, content wise, is the "value added"[13] material created by the publisher’s editorial staff. This value added stuff is generally made-up of headnotes and maybe a summary of the case (it can be very hard to find the information you are looking for in a case without headnotes, as a result, headnotes add a lot of value). However, the actual text that was created by the court will, for the most part, remain unaltered, regardless of who is publishing it.


Where things get complicated is that each publisher uses their own volume and page numbering system just to be difficult. Moreover, the name of the set of books will also change, to add confusion. That means that a single case can have two or three places where it can be found and two or three different cites telling a lawyer its location. These two or three different cites for the exact same case are called "parallel cites." Some warped legal mind envisioned these cites as "running parallel to each other." It is a visual thing. Think of it this way, if the parallel bars in Olympic gymnastics ran to the same point it would fundamentally change the sport. I guess if you line the sites up one after another in a sentence you could say they run "parallel." Since a lawyer is never sure what the local law library has, this lawyer will want to know each of the parallel cites.


For example, a Wisconsin lawyer can find Wisconsin Supreme Court cases in two different sets of books. West Group publishes The Wisconsin Reports (Wis. 2d) (note: The Wisconsin Reports used to be published by Lawyers Cooperative Publishing) and West Group prints the exact same case in a set of books called North Western Reporter (N.W.2d) that covers all midwestern states. The Wisconsin Reports version of the case would note the North Western Reporter publication as the parallel cite and North West Reporter version would note Wisconsin Reports version of the case as the parallel cite. The Wisconsin Reports and North Western Reporter used to compete against each other. The two sets of book used to be similar to Siamese twins who hated each other. However, both sets of books are now happily owned by West Group.


The Wisconsin Reports is for those who want to own just the Wisconsin cases and the North Western Reporter is for those that want all the cases from the Midwest. (I know, I know, the name does not match reality. Someone must not have bothered to glance at a map when they picked names (possibly out of a hat). I am also at a loss to explain other geographic anomalies like Tampa Bay playing football in the Central Division with Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, and Minnesota.) There seems to be plenty of jobs for people who are geographically impaired.)


A complete cite for a Wisconsin case would look like this:

Garrett v. City of New Berlin, 122 Wis. 2d 223, 362 N.W.2d 137 (1985).

This information tells a lawyer that the Garrett case can be found in two publications (actually 4 or 5 if you are really digging). In the Wisconsin Reports (Wis. 2d) the case is contained in volume 122 and starts on page 223. Moreover, the lawyers is also told that this case can also be found in the North Western Reporter (N.W.2d). A comma separates the two parallel cites. It is this comma that lets the lawyer know where the next cite starts. The West Group version of this case is contained in volume 362 and starts on page 137.

Another example is Plessy v. Ferguson. The Plessy case can be located in three different publications. The United States Government publishes a version of the case (U.S.), West Group publishes their version (S.Ct.), and LEXIS joins in on the fun with their version (L.Ed.). (Note: L.Ed used to be a Lawyers Cooperative publication). A complete cite for Plessy would look like this (it’s not a pretty sight): Plessy v Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S.Ct. 1138, 41 L.Ed. 256.

Warning: If the last section did not lobotomize you, it is probably safe to read the next section with out fear of further injury.


Q: What is a pinpoint cite?


A: Pinpoint cites have nothing to do with voodoo dolls. They have everything to do with letting another lawyer know the exact page within a case you are referring to. That is to say, you are "pinpointing" a lawyer to a specific page within a case. You may remember (if you drank enough Jolt Cola to stay awake) that a case cite starts with the volume number, followed by the abbreviated name of the set of books and then the page number the case starts on.


An example is: Waube v. Warrington, 216 Wis. 603, 606.

This cite tells the lawyer that Waube is contained in volume 216 of the Wisconsin Reporter and the case starts on page 603. The starting page (p. 603) is followed by a "," and then the number "606." Page 606 is the location within the Waube case where the specific information you are referring to is located.

The reason pinpoint cites exist is simple. A case may be 75+ pages long. If all a lawyer is told is the volume and the page on which the case started, the lawyer would have to take hours to locate the information he is looking for (the information the cite referred to). Moreover, clients (often called meal tickets) get upset when they get a bill that states $150 -- For time spent searching a really, really large case for one sentence. (Note: Our word searchable CD-ROM products make this search easy, but of course a lawyer would never bill a client the same $360 for the time that it "would" have taken). Pinpoint cites are a courtesy and are not usually a mandatory requirement.


Skippable information that drones on and on about pinpoint cites


To have, for lack of better words, a "complete cite," you would ideally like to have a pinpoint cite for each of the publications in which the case you are citing to is reported. Remember (and then forget) that Wisconsin case law is found in two locations. For example, the Waube case is found in the Wisconsin Reports (published by West Group at 216 Wis. 603) and the North Western Reporter (Published by West Group at 258 N.W. 497). After each of these, cites you would add the specific page (within the case you are referring to). For example, the anal retentive (no, it is not hyphenated) version of a cite to one single Wisconsin case would look like this: Waube v. Warrington, 216 Wis. 603, 606, 258 N.W. 497, 499 (1935) (The pinpoint cite pages have been underlined here for illustrative purposes only and would not normally be underlined). This tells a lawyer that on page 606 of the Wisconsin Reporter and on page 499 of the North Western Reporter you will find the exact same information.


Sometimes, a lawyer will only give the pinpoint cite to the publication that he owns (He may not have the other publication to look up the other pinpoint cite even if he wanted to). Sometimes a lawyer won’t give you either pinpoint cite. A judge reading a brief that does not give pinpoint cites may wonder if the lawyer has really read the cases (or has only read the headnotes). Pinpoint cites in a brief say to the world, "don’t take my word for it, look it up yourself." Pinpoint cites show that you paid attention to detail.


  • Important sayings from legal history # 365.4: "Free legal advice is worth what you pay for it."[14]

The Federal Court System Abandon all hope ye who enter here

  • Summary: District Court (where you start)--------> Court of Appeals --------> Supreme Court --------> God


The United States Supreme Court (or "the Court")


The Supreme Court consists of nine justices that are appointed by the President of the United States. After appointment, the justices must be confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. In recent years these confirmation hearings have become a three ring circus. Things have gotten so bad that many qualified candidates refuse the nomination to avoid being burned at the stake in a process similar to the Spanish Inquisition.


Once a candidate has slipped past and been approved by the Senate panel, the person is ready to be sworn in as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Being an Associate Justice is like being a freshmen in college. You get no respect from the senior justices.


The Supreme Court is the highest court in America. The Supreme Court is the sole determiner of what is constitutional. This power allows the Supreme Court to determine that an act of Congress, or a state statute, or even the actions of the President violate the Constitution. This power to decide the constitutionality of just about everything is called "judicial review."


The Supreme Court was not given this power by the Constitution. The Supreme Court made this power up and gave it to themselves in a case called Marbury v Madison. Without this case, the Supreme Court would have no power. Remember our government is set up so that the three branches of government ((1) Judiciary = The Federal Court system, (2) Executive = The President, and (3) Legislative = Congress (which is made up of the Senate and House of Representatives)), have checks and balances on the other branches’ powers. Our system of government is set up so that nothing can be accomplished. Whenever one branch of government attempts to do anything meaningful, the other branches can step in and put a stop to it.

The Executive and the Legislative branches of government choose and confirm who will be on the Court. While the President does everything in his power to find a candidate for the court that agrees with everything he says, justices are notorious for changing their political view radically. In the real world, this is called lying at a job interview. The Supreme Court gets 8000+ petitions a year requesting that the court hear their case. However, the court only hears 100 or so cases a year (you have better odds playing the New York State Lottery).


  • West Group publishes a set of books called Supreme Court Reporter ("S.Ct") which contains the text of all Supreme Court cases.


Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals is just below the Supreme Court. Here, again, you have a bunch of old and younger farts who are appointed for life (I think they go threw flatulence training at seminars each year. Justice may be blind, but that does not stop her from finding judges). These judges sit in panels of three and listen to two lawyers argue for 20 minutes each. Imagine having only 20 minutes to save your client from the gas chamber or from becoming a "girlfriend" of a 340 pound guy named Bubba (it should be noted that most lawyers could just save their breath, because the judges have already made up their minds). The judges will then vote on the case. Then one judge is appointed to write the opinion for the court. If the judge so chooses, this opinion can be recommended for publication. The opinions of the Courts of Appeal go in a set of books called "F.3d" (Federal Reporter), which is published by West Group.


There are 11 judicial circuits (or territories) and a couple of odd ball circuits called the "Federal Circuit" and the "District of Columbia Circuit" for a total of 13. I used to work for the 7th Circuit which covers Wisconsin, Illinois (pronounced "Ill-Noise"), and Indiana. Considering how few cases are heard by the Supreme Court, this is the end of road for most federal cases.


  • West Group publishes the Court of Appeals cases in a publication called "The Federal Reporter."


The District Courts

These are the courts that do the real work. These courts operate like you would expect them to. You have witnesses testify that they saw the murder take place. You have all the evidence (i.e. bloody knife, suicide note, etc.) presented. You might have a jury. The Perry Mason and LA Law nonsense happens here.


  • West Group publishes the District Court cases in a publication called the "Federal Supplement."


Supreme Court and Court of Appeals v. The District Court (A cage match)


The way the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals are run is very different from the District Court. In the former two courts you have no witnesses testifying, you have no evidence being presented and there is no jury. You only have lawyers submitting a 15+ page document called a "brief." This brief only contains arguments that the District Court made some mistake. Court cases are complicated and District Court judges must use their discretion to make decisions throughout the trial. As a result, there is always something to complain about when filing your appeal. After the judges read the briefs, they hear oral arguments. Oral arguments are really oral presentations of the lawyers’ briefs. However, the judges get to ask questions of the lawyers. Each lawyer gets approximately 20 minutes. After this is done, the court will decide the case and write an opinion. (The losing party files their appeal with the Supreme Court (often called "The Supremes").


Bottom line: There is a "funneling effect" that takes place. 500,000+ case a year enter the federal court system, starting with the District Courts, and only a select few cases end up at the top and are heard by the Supreme Court.

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