LexisNexis--Find a Case

  • Introduction
  • Getting Started
  • Finding a Case by Name
  • The Opinion by Section
  • Saving Your Research
  • Shepardizing a Case--Is It Good Law?
  • Searching by Topic

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Introduction

The "lexis" in LexisNexis derives from the Latin word for law--lex.

Though LexisNexis includes information on a variety of subjects, one of its biggest components is its legal one. This tutorial will focus on one aspect of the legal database--court cases.

The database includes the full text of every federal appellate court case as well as every case decided by the Supreme Court. Some federal district court cases are included, too. (Cases decided at the state level in both appellate and supreme courts are also included.)

These are the courts' opinions—their final judgments. These are not case records—the compilation of documents filed with the court: those can be found only in courthouses and archives.

Though legal language can be challenging if not impenetrable to the uninitiated, court cases are nevertheless worth considering as a basis for one’s own writing, especially if the paper is argumentative. The reason for this is obvious when you consider that the basic function of the courts is to resolve disputes—settle arguments, in other words.


Getting Started

So, let’s take a look at how to find cases in LexisNexis. On the library’s home page, click the databases tab and select LexisNexis Academic from the Frequently Used Databases list. Click all the way through until you land on this screen:

 Default Search Screen

This is the default search interface. We’re going to use the Look up a Legal Case search engine at the bottom of the screen. Click the down arrow to open it.  Here you can look up cases by legal citation, by the names of the parties, or by topic.


Finding a Case by Name

We will now look up one of the seminal civil rights cases, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, the case that ended racial segregation in public schools. To search by party, simply type in the names of the opposing parties. You should get a list that looks something like this:

The cases are arranged in reverse chronological order. But why are there so many cases on the results list? Understand that as cases develop, they will work their way through the court system, starting at the district court level. Notice that the earliest entries are from the District Court. Next, a case will go to the Court of Appeals. That phase of the case is reflected in the middle of the list. Finally, comes the Supreme Court: those cases are at the top of the list. Each time a court is asked to render a judgment on some issue in the case, that judgment is reduced to writing and becomes the opinion of the court on that issue, and so it gets its own separate entry.

The opinion we are looking for--the one that is so often cited--was decided May 17, 1954. Find it and click it to see the full text. This opinion is not all that lengthy by Supreme Court standards, so we will take a look at the different parts of it.


The Opinion by Section

First, the caption, at the very top: this is the title of the case. Below that are the legal citations to the various reporter series in which the case was previously published. This is the information you would need to look up a case by citation.

After the History and Disposition sections is the Case Summary. Below that are the Headnotes, which are digests of important points of law that are discussed within the case. These are followed by the Syllabus, which is an outline of the main points of the case.

Scroll past the personalities involved in arguing the case to get to the actual Opinion. Admittedly, the way this part is set up makes it difficult to read. You will see footnotes interspersed with the text. Throughout, you see hyperlinks to the various headnotes and footnotes as well as to other cases that are cited in the text.


Saving Your Research

Along the bar just above the text of the case are several icons (printer, envelope, etc.). Use these to print, email, and save the case.


Shepardizing a Case--Is It Good Law?

If you are going to rely on a court case, you want to make sure that the case hasn’t been overturned or reversed. To determine the status of a case, to see whether it is still good law, you must Shepardize it. In the space just above the print/email/save icons is the Shepardize link.  Click the down arrow by Next Steps and select Shepardize.  Then click the blue Go button.

On the resulting screen, in the summary box near the top, you see there has been no subsequent history. So, the ruling is still valid. Interpreting this stuff can be a little tricky, since there are bits and pieces of cases that might be modified or overturned, but still leaving the main decision intact.


Searching by Topic

You can also search for cases by means of a simple keyword search.  To access this function, go back to the default search screen and open the Search by Content Type drop down menu (red arrow).

Search by Content Type

For example, do a search by topic for school desegregation.  Remember that effective keyword searching in a technical field like the law requires familiarity with the terms of art or jargon of the field.  The more cases you look at, the more fluent you will become in the language and the more effective will be your subsequent searches of the database.


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Look up the case of Citizens United versus Federal Elections Commission.  What was the highest court to consider this case?

 

 

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