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Case Law Research

Concept of Precedent



Finding cases that discuss the points that are the subject of the research problem is one part of the analysis. Another part is the significance of the case in relation to the jurisdiction. As indicated earlier in relation to the Illinois Appellate Courts, cases from one district are only binding in that district. Similarly, cases from the various Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal are only binding within those circuits, and on the district courts of those circuits. Be aware of the hierarchy of courts and what opinions may be binding on those courts, compared to opinions that are persuasive.

Published and Unpublished Opinions

Published and Unpublished Opinions

Not all opinions of a court are published and/or reported. Most courts have rules about citation of unpublished opinions. In Illinois, it is Supreme Court Rule 23 which states that the Court (including the Appellate Court) may designate a disposition as an order, in which case it will not appear in the official or unofficial reports, and cannot be cited as precedent. Generally, Lexis and Westlaw will pick up these unpublished opinions. However, this is a recent trend with these research services. They have not gone back to retrospectively add previously unpublished opinions or orders. Aside from their availability, courts tend to enforce the non-citation aspect of these opinions. The logic behind the rule is that these opinions add nothing to the development of the law because they are usually the same application of settled law time and time again. Whether or not this is true, a court has the option of issuing a document with a “not for publication” designation.

Illinois court rules also limit the length of opinions in printed Illinois case reporters. There are times when an opinion that appears online will have whole sections of text that do not appear in the published report. The online versions will have obvious markers that delineate the unpublished text from that which is published. 

The demand for these types of opinions is still high, especially from attorneys who feel they must uncover every applicable opinion, citable or not. West, in fact, began a publication called the Federal Appendix (KF 105 .W47 - DePaul Law Library has v. 1-79 only, covering 2001-2003) to collect these opinions from the federal courts. Each case report, however, still carries the “not-for-citation” admonishment with citation to the specific court rule barring the use.