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Researching Opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States

Researching Opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States

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Published by Dan Goodman
This is an article on researching opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States.

All you need to know about doing this type of research.
This is an article on researching opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States.

All you need to know about doing this type of research.

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Published by: Dan Goodman on May 13, 2009
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Researching Opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States

Dan Goodman
© 2009

The opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States are published officially in a set of case books called the United States Reports. 28 U.S.C. §411(a) [Note 1] The United States Reports are referred to as the bounded volumes of the Supreme Court’s opinions (and other related materials, such as: rulings, orders, memoranda decisions, case tables). Only the bound volumes of the United States Reports contain the final, official text of the opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States. In case of discrepancy between the bound volume of a case and any other version of the case--whether print or electronic, official or unofficial--the bound volume controls. The early volumes of the United States Reports were originally published privately by the individual Supreme Court Reporters, also known as “nominative” reporters. [Note 2] As was the practice in England, the reports were referred to by the names of the reporters who compiled them. “The first ninety volumes of the United States Reports are still cited by name of the individual reporter. [Note 3] The nominative reporters ended as a result of the decision in Wheaton v. Peters, 33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 591 (1834), in which the Supreme Court decided that the reporter held no copyright in the text of the decisions. [Note 4] The United States Reports then became the official reports of the United States Supreme Court. The United States Reports are abbreviated in citations as ‘U.S.’ .” [Note 5] The first two reporters acted in an unofficial capacity. In 1817, Congress authorized the appointment of Reporter with an annual salary of $1000 per year (An Act to provide for reports of the decisions of the Supreme Court, March 3, 1817). [Note 6] In 1953 the title Reporter was changed to Reporter of Decisions by the request of then reporter, Walter Wyatt with the authorization of then Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson. -1-

Volume 1 of the United States Reports contains no decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States. Instead, there are decisions from various Pennsylvania courts, dating from the colonial period and the first decade after Independence. The volume was originally titled, “Reports of Cases Ruled and Adjudged in the Courts of Pennsylvania, Before and Since the Revolution.” It represented the works of Alexander J. Dallas, as a lawyer and journalist (in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) reporting on these cases for newspapers and periodicals. It was printed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by Thomas Bradford in 1790. Volumes 2, 3 and 4 do have decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, but there are also decisions from lower federal courts and Pennsylvania courts. The Reporter (of Decisions) is responsible for preparing a syllabus for each of the Supreme Court’s decisions. Known also as a headnote, the syllabus is ahead of the decision (opinion), summarizes the case, and indicates the Court’s holding. He or she is also in charge with editing and publishing the decisions of the Supreme Court both when they are announced and when they are published in the United States Reports. Prior to the release of each bound volume of the United States Reports, the court's decisions appear in three temporary, official forms: the bench opinion, the slip opinion, and the preliminary print. The bench opinion is the opinion handed down from the bench on the day of release by the Supreme Court of the United States. It is intended for the public and the media. Another version of the opinion is sent to the Court’s printer on the same day. When printed (after a few days) this version of the opinion becomes the slip opinion. The slip opinion is a printed form of the opinion issued from the Court. It contains the unanimous opinion; majority opinion (or plurality opinion) and any concurring opinion(s) or dissenting opinion(s), and the syllabus. It may also have corrections made. In a situation, therefore, of a discrepancy between the bench opinion and the slip opinion, the slip opinion controls. The slip opinion, along with other slip opinions, and all of the announcements, tables, indexes and other features that make up the United States Reports are combined into a soft cover pamphlet called a preliminary print. A preliminary print (or a supplement) is a collection of slip opinions, with related materials, in soft cover form. A slip opinion in a preliminary print may have additional corrections. In a situation, therefore, of a discrepancy between the slip opinion and the slip opinion in the preliminary print, -2-

the preliminary print of the slip opinion controls. Usually, two or three preliminary prints will be combined into a single bound volume. A slip opinion in the bound volume may have more corrections. In which case, the bound volume, as stated above, controls. ____________

Notes: 1) 28 USC 411(a) states: “The decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States shall be printed, bound, and distributed in the preliminary prints and bound volumes of the United States Reports as soon as practicable after rendition, to be charged to the proper appropriation for the judiciary. The number and distribution of the copies shall be under the control of the Joint Committee on Printing.” 2) The United States Reports were issued by private publishers until 1922 when the U.S. Government Printing Office assumed publication, beginning with volume 257 covering the October term, 1921. (http://www.answers.com/topic/united-states-reports) 3) The name of the Reporters for the first ninety volumes of the United States Reports are: Volumes 1 4 Reporter Alexander J. Dallas William Cranch Henry Wheaton Richard Peters Benjamin Chew Howard Jeremiah Sullivan Black John William Wallace Term 1790 – 1800 1801 – 1815 1816 – 1827 1828 – 1842 1843 – 1860 1861 – 1862 1863 – 1874 Designation 1–4 1–9 Dallas Cranch

5 - 13 14 – 25 26 – 41 42 – 65 66 – 67 68 – 90

1 – 12 Wheat. 1 – 16 Peters 1 – 24 Howard 1–2 Black

1 – 23 Wall.

Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States appearing in -3-

these early reports have dual citation forms; one for the volume number of the United States Reports, and one for the set of nominate reports. For example, the complete citation to McCulloch v. Maryland is 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819). 4) Before this case the individual reporter privately published the United States Reports for profit. In the case, former reporter Henry Wheaton sued then current reporter Richard Peters for reprinting cases from “Wheaton’s Reports” in abridged form. 5) Thomas M. Cooley Law Libraries’ Research Guide Series; “United States Supreme Court Opinions” at http://www.cooley.edu/library/research_guides/United_States_Supre me_Court_Opinions.pdf 6) See 28 U.S.C. 673 (Reporter)

Further Readings: 1) Thomas M. Cooley Law Libraries’ Research Guide Series; “United States Supreme Court Opinions”; http://www.cooley.edu/library/research_guides/United_States_Supre me_Court_Opinions.pdf 2) Supreme Court of the United States; “Information about Opinions”; http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/info_opinions.html 3) Wikipedia; “Reporter of Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reporter_of_Decisions_of_the_Supreme_ Court_of_the_United_States 4) Craig Joyce, “Reporters of Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States.” University of Houston Law Center No. 2005-A-11. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=800884 5) Answer.com; “United States Reports” http://www.answers.com/United%20States%20Reports 6) Absolute Astronomy.com; “United States Reports”; http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/United_States_Reports -4-

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