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Legal Research Basics

Overview and glossary for the new legal researcher


The following is a selection of words commonly used in legal research. The list is by no means exhaustive. To the extent unfamiliar terms are encountered try Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009) [assorted dictionary stands throughout the library].

Annotated Code: A version of a code (a compilation of laws) containing the language of the law and references to law review articles, other relevant regulations or statutes, and summaries of cases discussing and interpreting the particular code section. Annotations are provided by the editors and are not a part of the official language of the code.

United States Code Annotated is an annotated version of the official U.S. Code. Case: A dispute between two or more parties. It also refers to an opinion issued by a court and its ruling on a particular set of facts and legal issues.

Citation: The reference that identifies a particular case, article, book, statute or other resource.

Cite: Short for citation.

Code: A compilation of laws arranged by subject matter.

Official Code/Reporter: Cases regulations and statutes may be published both electronically and in print. Official publications are specifically authorized by statute or other governmental act. Unofficial publications are those that lack official sanction, but may include additional research tools useful to the user.

Opinion: The reasons given for a court’s judgment, finding or conclusion. Opinions may be published or unpublished. Published opinions are generally available through the reporter system. Unpublished opinions may be available only from the court. 

Pocket part: Pamphlets inserted into a pocket generally located in the back of a book that update the information in the book itself. They are most often found in statutory codes, digests and encyclopedias. It is absolutely essential that the pocket part be checked if using a volume that has one. The pocket parts in digests provide additional information and in codes will indicate if the code section has been amended or repealed since the main volume was published.

Reporter: Court opinions from a particular court or group of courts are published in books referred to as reporters. Reporters may be official or unofficial.

Slip opinion: The first stage of publication for judicial opinions. Usually, the decision from a case is first issued by the court as a pamphlet containing the court’s opinion along with any dissenting and concurring opinions. These lack enhancements such as head notes and final official or unofficial citations. Slip opinions will be reprinted in advance sheets when enough exist to make up an issue and ultimately cumulated into the final bound volumes of a reporter. 

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