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Legal Research for Chicago History Fair Students
The History Fair is an excellent opportunity to explore how the legal system offers both support and obstacles for individuals. Whether someone is pursing a goal solely for their own interest or with the express purpose of creating larger societal change they may have to take their case to court. Sometimes what begins as an individual matter takes on much larger significance. Many cases that took on important historic significance began in Illinois.
Doing legal research presents a challenge for non lawyers. The major online sources such as Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw are limited to subscribers. However doing research the old fashioned way, searching the stacks of the law library is rewarding. The employees of the Cook County law Library are very helpful to non lawyers. By using this guide and asking for help, if needed, students can have fun finding cases of historical importance that were started by people in Chicago..
Legal Research: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q. If I think I want to do my project around a court case where do I get started?
The main Cook County Law Library is located in the Daley Center in downtown Chicago at Dearborn and Washington. The library is on the 29 th floor. The library is open to the public week days from 8:30 AM to 9:00 PM . The people behind the information desk are especially helpful.
Q.I heard there are online legal research tools, why can't I just do research on my computer?
As stated in the introduction, the major online research guides Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw are limited to subscribers. There is a user friendly computer research guide at the downtown law library called Lois Law. There is a user manual and the staff is very helpful.
Q. Its good that the library staff is so helpful but what if I want a lot of general information on how to do legal research?
The following are excellent general guides for lawyer and non lawyer alike to the basics of legal research. They are kept behind the information desk and can be used in the library.
Q Can I take books that are helpful home?
Unfortunately while the library is open to the public only those with a card can take those volumes which do circulate out of the library. Photocopies cost 10 cents a page.
Q. It seem like there is so much material, how do I get started?
Because you are working on a project for the Chicago History Fair you want to concentrate on cases involving individuals and organizations from Chicago. A good place to start is with a set of volumes called digests. Each state has multi-volume sets which summarize reported (written down) legal decisions. The volumes are arranged alphabetically. They are arranged by legal topics or areas of law. This means if you are interested in a certain topic such as the right of students to publish newspapers you may need to try several different topics such as schools and free speech before you find case names. The digests also list cases by case name and some have a special index called words and phrases that uses popular language. The Illinois digests are as follows:
There are also digests for Federal Court and U.S. Supreme Court Cases. These are an important source because many cases that deal with controversial issues begin in or are appealed to the Federal Courts and some do end up in the Supreme Court. Like with the State digests you can find cases arranged by legal tropics and by common words and phrases.
Q. Can you explain more about looking up cases by name?
All cases civil and criminal have a plaintiff (the party initiating the case) and a defendant.( the party against whom the case is brought) Either can be an individual or an organization or a government body. If you have some idea who the parties to the dispute were check the table that lists cases by case name. You can also check the phrase index. You can also combine on line general research to get an idea of where to start. For example by doing a "Google" of "Red Squad" or "Nazi March" you may find news stories or book reviews that list the parties to the dispute. Be sure to check both State and Federal digests if your other research does not tell you in what court the case was heard. For example stories about the "Red Squad" case talk about the involvement of The Alliance to End Repression. The is listed as Alliance to End Repression et al., Plaintiffs V. City of Chicago et al. Defendants American Civil Liberties Union et al., Plaintiffs V. City of Chicago et al. Defendants. It can be found in the case index of Federal Reporters. the case number in the trial courts, The Alliance number is 74 C 3268. This designates the year and the fact that the case is civil.
Q. Once I have the name of a case how do I find out what happened in the case?
After getting the case name via a Google search or from the digests you will find the official citation. Every court decision that gets printed (is a published opinion) has an official citation based on the court where it was heard. For example Alliance to end repression vs. Chicago is listed as 561 F. Supp 537. This indicates that the case is Federal. Both State and Federal reporters are in bound volumes in numeric order. The first number is the volume number. Federal Reporters, Federal Reporters 2nd and Federal Reporters 3rd list cases from the Federal Court of Appeals. Fed Supp are cases from the Federal District Courts. Volumes designated FRD are cases designated Federal Rules Decisions. Those called Fed Supp list cases from the Federal Appeals court. Cases from the Illinois Supreme Court are listed by volume number and the designation ILL or ILL2nd. Cases from the Appellate Court are ILL APP 1-3. The number following the designation is the page of the volume where your particular case is listed. Supreme court cases have three reporters. The Official Reporters are Called United States Reports.
Q. Once I have a volume number how do I find the book?
Like any library the law library is organized by "topics." For legal research the topics include State, Federal and Supreme Court cases as well as digests and legal periodicals and practice guide books. Like all libraries the topical material is organized in numbered stacks. The stacks most relevant for History Fair Projects are as follows: stack 16 US Supreme Court Reporters; stacks17-20 Federal Reporters and stacks 23-25 Illinois Reporters. The relevant digests are near each set of reporters. Again the staff is very helpful. Legal periodicals and law reviews are located in a large separate room to the left as you face the information desk. A map is attached.
Q. So When I read these books what exactly am I reading?
All cases in reporters contain the decisions rendered by higher level courts such as state appellate and supreme courts and federal district and appellate courts and the US Supreme Court. Under the title of the case that lists the plaintiff and defendant is the number of the case in the lower court. For example the Alliance case is 74 C 3268. The written decision is NOT transcripts of or complete information The decision contains a factual summary of the case. The decision gives the legal rational for affirming (agreeing with) or overruling (disagreeing with) the judge or jury in the trial court. The case you are reading may cite prior cases to demonstrate the reason for the decision. These prior cases place your case in historical context and help you understand if the case is following established precedent or breaking new ground. Also it is important to understand that the case may deal with some technical legal issues not relevant to your history fair project.
Q. If the reporters do not contain information about the trial where can I find that information?
Every case in State and Federal Court has a file. Each court has a clerk's office where the file is kept. Each file has basic information for every court date relative to who was present (parties and witnesses), what legal motions if any were heard and any decisions (including just continuing the case to a new day) that happened every time the case was in court. The file folder also contains all legal motions and writings in the case.
State cases are filed by county so Cook County cases are in the Daley Center for most civil cases and at the criminal court at 26th and California for criminal cases. Civil cases are divided into many divisions.
For the State cases you will have to have some idea what division the heard the case and will need to ask for help finding where the clerk for that division is.
For Federal cases go to the Federal Building on Dearborn. Federal cases that are not on appeal are filed on the 20th floor. Those on Appeal are on the 27th floor. Due to space limitations some are in the National Archives and Record Administration office at 7358 S. Pulaski in Chicago.
These files are open to the public but a picture ID is needed. The files that are at the Federal Building can be viewed on request. To view archived files an appointment is needed. The number is 773-948-9030.
The best place to start a Federal search is on the 20 th floor. The clerks are very helpful and can tell you the situation of the case you are studying. Some cases are microfilmed and the information can be viewed via computer.
Pages from the computer at the Federal building can be printed out for ten cents a page. You need exact cash, a check or credit card.
You will need the name of the case and the trial court number found on the decision to find the case in the clerk's office.
Q. If in addition to an individual case I want information about legal history of the significance of a case what sources are valuable?
Legal periodicals and law reviews.
Q. What are legal periodicals and law reviews and how can I use them?
Legal Periodicals are published by State, local and Federal bar associations or by professional societies in specialty areas such as criminal or patent law. The articles tend to be technical and geared to practitioners. Law Reviews are published by law schools and contain articles that analyze discrete cases or legal trends in a scholarly way. Most law reviews are general content but some deal with specific topics. There are two multi-volume Indexes that list all law review articles by topic, case name and subject matter. Finding an article on the topic of free speech would be a good source for an overview and a source to finding important cases. Finding an article on a case such as the "Red Squad" case would lead you to an analysis of the cases and other cases that followed or distinguished the case. Both have volumes that note the dates covered. You obviously want to find articles from both the time your case was decided and the most recent articles to obtain a complete historic perspective.
The Indexes are: Index to Legal Periodicals and Current Law Index . The most recent volumes of Index to Legal Periodicals is kept behind the information desk. The Current Law Index is in the separate room with the law review volumes. It has a three volume index that helps you find articles by common phrases and an alphabetical listing of law reviews that can be useful in finding topical publications.
Q. So now I have read a case and have other non legal sources such as newspaper articles and personal interviews how do I know if the legal principals from a 40 year old case are still in effect today?
You go through a process called "Shepardizing" the case.
To Shepardize a case means to track the case and comes from the fact that each set of reporters has a volume called Shepard's Citations that tracks cases. For History Fair projects students will need to use the Shepard volumes for Illinois, federal and U.S. Supreme Court cases.
There are two reasons to Shepardize a case.
Understanding the case history. Each Shepard volume has an
explanation of symbols at the beginning.
Q. This is confusing to a non lawyer. What are the most important symbols?
Look at the history of the case to see if it has been reversed, vacated or modified.
In looking at the treatment of the case you want to see if the case has been followed or used as justification in other cases either in Illinois or around the country. You will also want to see if the case has been limited to a certain situation or distinguished from other cases that seem similar. You also want to see under what circumstances your case was questioned. All of this will help you discern historic patterns and set your case in context. For example did courts in other states where police departments had different practices say the legal precedents of the Alliance case did not apply?
A copy of a page from a Shepard's volume dealing with the Alliance case is attached.
Note that the federal Court for cases arising in Illinois is the 7 th Circuit. You see that there the case was explained. The case was followed by another Federal Circuit Court.
It is important to remember that cases deal with many different issues. When a case is explained or followed it may be an issue different from the one you are studying. In the example above the case that is designated as "following" the Alliance case did not deal with spying on political groups or on individuals.
Q. What else do I need to know about Shepardizing?
You should find the Shepard's immediately following the decision and very recent cases at a minimum. If you find an important new case based on the first case you should shepardize that. Also do not be discouraged if the cases you find seem to have nothing to do with your topic. Cases often deal with more than one issue. When the case is quoted in a subsequent case it can be dealing with any of these issues.
Also you may find some confusing designations in the Shepard's volumes. Each state has an official reporter so a case decided in Illinois could be used as the basis of the decision in another state, so you may see a case, for example, listed as -De-that gives you the volume and page number of the Delaware case.
These state reporters are the official reporters. State cases are also recorded in unofficial regional reporters. Illinois is in Northeast Reporters which is abbreviated NE. If you come across symbols you do not undestand ask the librarian for help.
These tips have been prepared by Ina Marks, a retired public defender, avid reader, and long-time History Fair supporter.