A Law Librarian Explains Case Law

What is case law?  Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute offers this explanation:

“Case law is law that is based on judicial decisions rather than law based on constitutions, statutes, or regulations. Case law concerns unique disputes resolved by courts using the concrete facts of a case. By contrast, statutes and regulations are written abstractly.

Case law, also used interchangeably with common law, refers to the collection of precedents and authority set by previous judicial decisions on a particular issue or topic. In that sense, case law differs from one jurisdiction to another. For example, a case in New York would not be decided using case law from California. Instead, New York courts will analyze the issue relying on binding precedent.  If no previous decisions on the issue exist, New York courts might look at precedents from a different jurisdiction, that would be persuasive authority rather than binding authority. Other factors such as how old the decision is and the closeness to the facts will affect the authority of a specific case in common law.”

In basic terms, decisions from the Supreme Court of the United States generally set binding precedent (legal rules or principles that must be followed) for all lower courts in the country. Decisions from the Supreme Court of Ohio set binding precedent for all lower state courts in the state of Ohio. Decisions from the First District Court of Appeals sets binding precedent for all trial courts (Common Pleas and Municipal) in Hamilton County.

How do you use case law?

In your court filing, such as a motion or a brief, you may make various legal and factual arguments. In support of those arguments, you might cite to Ohio Revised Code statutes or other cases that are similar to your own. If you are in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas or Municipal Court, cases from the First District Court of Appeals, Ohio Supreme Court and US Supreme Court would be binding precedent.

If there are no other cases similar to yours from the 1st District, Ohio Supreme Court or US Supreme Court, you might find cases from other jurisdictions like the 2nd District Court of Appeals, but those would be persuasive authorities. The court is not required to follow those rulings, but might still consider them.

How do you cite case law?

The Supreme Court of Ohio has a citation guide available online that most courts in Ohio follow. Each court also has their own Local Rules which would let you know if their citation rules were different.

How do you know if a case is still good law?

Whether or not a case is still good law can be complicated. Cases can be reversed on appeal by higher courts. Case law or (precedent) set by a case could also have been overruled by a later, different case decided by a court that has jurisdiction. For example, the Ohio Supreme Court could issue a decision in another case that has the effect of overruling a precedent set in a case from the 1st District. However, the Supreme Court of Ohio cannot overrule or overturn a Supreme Court of Kentucky case, the 2nd District Court of Appeals cannot overturn or overrule a 3rd District case because these courts don’t have jurisdiction.

Also, sometimes part of a case may still be good law, but other parts are not.

So where do you start to figure this out? You need to use a case citator. The Library of Congress has this guide on ways to search for cases but there is not an official and reliable case citator freely available on the internet.

So what should you do? You have two options. You can email the Law Library’s Virtual Reference Desk with your case citation and we will email you the full annotations from Westlaw (which is an official and reliable citator) or you can visit the Law Library and search for cases on Fastcase (also official and reliable citator). Both options are free and available to everyone, whether attorney, subscriber or member of the public.

A Lawyer Explains... is a collaboration between the Hamilton County Law Library and the Cincinnati Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service. The information provided in this blog is not legal advice.