In legal research, an opinion is not just a judge’s personal view or attitude about a matter. Instead, it is a formal, potentially binding, detailed explanation. The opinion provides an explanation of and justification for a judge’s or judicial panel’s decision that generally includes a summary of the relevant facts in a case, a statement of the legal issue or issues, the court’s decision (often referred to as the “ruling” or “holding”) and a discussion of the judge’s reasoning or rationale. These opinions make up case law (also referred to as “common law”).
Opinions matter because they can be a potentially binding, primary source of law (referred to as “precedent”) for a future court case. It’s important to realize that an opinion is only potentially binding, because there are a lot of factors that must be considered to determine whether the opinion applies to a current situation. Factors such as different facts, subsequent changes to the law and the jurisdiction of the courts involved will impact whether a previous case can be used as precedent. Check out this article from the Maryland People’s Law Library that provides an overview on whether you can rely on case law.
There are several research paths to identify relevant case law. Check out this article from the Maryland People’s Law Library regarding how to find case law by subject.
Many of the resources listed in that article, such as digests (subject index to cases), annotated statutes (e.g., Michie’s Annotated Code of Maryland), encyclopedias (e.g., West’s Maryland Law Encyclopedia) and treatises are available in the Law Library in both print and electronic forms. In addition, you can search for case law through the Law Library’s subscriptions to online legal databases such as WestlawNext and LexisNexis.
Once you have identified cases that you would like to read, you can find case law in print and electronic formats. In print, the cases are published in serials called reporters, which publish the cases in approximate chronological order.
The Law Library’s print collection includes Maryland Reports (cases from Maryland Court of Appeals) and Maryland Appellate Reports (cases from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals) as well as federal and regional reports. You can read the cases in electronic format through the Law Library’s subscriptions to WestlawNext and LexisNexis. These subscriptions include document delivery services, so you can print or email the cases.
Once you have found relevant cases, you must check to make sure they are still considered “good law” through citators, which are services that check citations of a decided case to determine whether they have been supported, overruled or distinguished.
The Law Library provides access to online citators through WestlawNext (KeyCite) and LexisNexis (Shepard’s Citations), so please come by the service desk to learn more about online citators.
Stay tuned for the next post in our Law Day Series, which will provide an overview of statutes in Maryland.