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Political Science Research - Johnstown Campus: Finding Court Cases

A guide to resources for Dr. James Alexander's PS 1700: Political Science Research course.

Finding Court Cases in Lexis-Nexis

To search for a specific federal or state court case, choose “Look up a Legal Case” and search by Citation, by Parties, or by Topic.  (To search by topic, enter keywords such as "nude photography").

Searching by citation is the most efficient way to find a specific case.  The box to the right will help you figure out how to interpret citations.

When you click on a case in Lexis-Nexis, you will usually see the case citation information, followed by information such as the Case Summary, Core Terms associated with that case (which you could use to search for similar cases), and LexisNexis Headnotes (if there are any).  The Headnotes are like the "Cliff's notes" version of a case, telling you the major points or highlights.  You can click on each Headnote to jump to its location in the full text of the case.

The full text of the case will usually follow the Headnotes.  You can print the full text in an HTML version by clicking the "Print" icon in LexisNexis; however, this will not give you the page numbers that you'll need to cite the case properly in your research paper.  For more information on accessing PDFs, refer to that box on this page.


This page is adapted from the guide, Criminal Justice Capstone - Greensburg Campus.

Interpreting Legal Citations

Searching by Citation is the most efficient way to find the case you need!  Here’s an example of how to interpret them:

United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 125 S. Ct. 738, 160 L. Ed. 2d 621 (2005)

  • In this citation, the names of the parties are United States and Booker; thus, the case name is United States v. Booker.  Typically the plaintiff is listed first, and the defendant second.
  • The next part of the citation tells you where to locate it.  This citation tells us that this case is reported in volume 543 of the United States Reports (abbreviated U.S.) and that the case begins on page 220.  This is the official citation for this case. 
  • Most cases are reported in more than one place.  The official citation will always be listed first, and then followed by citations for anywhere else that case was reported.  For instance, this case was also published in the Supreme Court Reporter (S.Ct.), and in the United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers’ Edition (L. Ed. 2d).  The parallel citations give the volume and page number for where you would find this case in those sources.
  • The citation will also give you the year that a decision was reached: in this case, 2005.
  • Sometimes you will encounter the symbol § which means “Section”.  When searching Lexis-Nexis, replace the symbol with SECTION or SEC (so 5 USCS § 5901 becomes 5 USCS SEC 5901).

Citations must be formatted correctly, including punctuation, for a successful search.  For more information see the citation help page in Lexis-Nexis Academic:

Legal Citations

Tip: If you are not sure what the abbreviation in a citation stands for....Google it!

Finding PDFs of Court Cases

Court cases listed in Lexis-Nexis will include an HTML version of the decision, but if you want to have the page numbers to cite in your research paper, you will need a PDF version.

For cases that are published by Lexis-Nexis, for example in the United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers' Edition (L. Ed. 2d as listed in the citation above), there may be a link in Lexis-Nexis to that PDF at the top of the case.  (Look for a link that says something like "View Official Reports PDF of This Document").  Keep in mind though that this will be the text from the parallel citation, not the official citation.

To access the publication for the official citation (such as the United States Reports in the citation above), check HeinOnline to see if the case is available there in full text.

  • Click on the "Citation" tab above the search box.
  • Enter the citation of the case you're looking for, such as "543 U.S. 220" and click the magnifying glass on the left or hit enter.
  • If that publication is available in HeinOnline, the case you searched should come up in PDF format, which you can then print or download.

Helpful Links

Help Pages in LexisNexis