Reference from Coast to Coast - The Skinny on Briefs

By Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen, Published on November 18, 2002

Welcome to Reference From Coast to Coast: Sources and Strategies, a monthly column written by Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen.

Jan Bissett is a Reference Librarian in the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan office of Dickinson Wright PLLC. She is a past president of the Michigan Association of Law Libraries and has published articles on administrative and research related topics in the Michigan Association of Law Libraries Newsletter and Michigan Defense Quarterly. She and Margi Heinen team teach Legal Information Sources and Services for Wayne State University's Library and Information Science Program in Detroit, Michigan.   

Margi Heinen is the Manager of Library Services at Sherman and Howard in Denver, Colorado. She has taught courses on Legal Resources at the University of Michigan's School of Information and at Wayne State University's School of Library and Information Science. She has been a faculty member for several I.P.E. presentations including "Internet Strategies for the Paralegal in Michigan" and ICLE's "Internet Legal Resources" seminar. She is a member of the Colorado Association of Law Libraries and the American Association of Law Libraries.

We have all had the experience. As librarian, law student, lawyer or legal researcher we've all confronted the request for materials from which a winning legal argument can be made. What could be better than examining someone else's success? The argument or supporting law needed to start, complete or unblock your research just may be contained in "The Brief". "The Brief", the one from the case which fits or so nearly fits your circumstance. If we could just look at those briefs filed in that case we would have the answers. "The Brief" may be from a case currently making headlines and you want to get your hands on the documents described by the media just yesterday.

High profile cases, U.S. Supreme Court cases and Amicus Curiae Briefs from professional associations are more likely to appear on the web than briefs from state appellate courts which may not be easy to find electronically. Where do we look-how do we start and if they're not available on the web, just where might you find them? We hope the following sources and suggestions will assist you in getting the real skinny on briefs.

Start with the basics. What is the jurisdiction? Knowing where this brief was filed, by whom as well as an approximate date is crucial to finding it. For other tips on finding briefs, check out Zimmerman's Research Guide "Briefs", Harvard Law School Library's Finding Records and Briefs and Appellate Briefs and Records - Underused Tools for Legal Research, a research guide from Jenkins Law Library.

U.S. Supreme Court Briefs

If you're looking for a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court your chances of finding it electronically are good but not guaranteed. Diane D'Angelo describes for us her experience looking for Supreme Court briefs in Taming the Knee-jerk Reaction: Locating U.S. Supreme Court Briefs from the Suffolk University Law Library Newsletter. The chart she includes is very helpful in describing the coverage of the sources she used. LexisNexis(tm), Westlaw(r), Findlaw and BriefServe provide access to U.S. Supreme Court Briefs. The court's Where to Find Briefs of the U.S. Supreme Court lists subscription databases, Internet sources, document retrieval services, self-service at the Supreme Court as well as depositories of printed Supreme Court briefs. Print collections or microform also exist in many academic law libraries.

Selected Amicus Curiae Briefs are available on American Law Sources On-line. Use your favorite search engine to locate others. Professional associations often post such briefs to their web sites - many "library" related concerns such as public access to information and copyright issues are often addressed by our profession's associations, such as the American Library Association.

Federal Agency Materials

You also want to know the jurisdiction to determine if there is a government agency web site that may provide the brief. The U.S. Department of Justice Legal Documents provides links to division materials including selected briefs. For instance, in antitrust actions you will be able to find the briefs filed by the United States Department of Justice on their web site. The Federal Communications Commission provides an index of its 1998 and 1999 briefs and the Securities and Exchange Commission provides links to selected SEC Appellate Court Briefs at its Commission Legal Briefs.

Federal Courts

Federal appellate court briefs may be available electronically from the court. The Seventh Circuit and Eighth Circuit offer links to Briefs at their respective web sites. These offerings conform to a suggested judicial privacy policy from the Judicial Conference of the United States. Generally, civil case materials as well as bankruptcy case materials are available electronically [with redacted personal information]. Criminal case information is currently not available electronically to the public. In addition to the materials provided by the Seventh and Eight Circuits, many federal courts are implementing electronic filing capabilities with the "CM/ECF" system. Access to electronic documents from the participating courts is available for a fee. Check the list of participating courts for specific access information. Personal experience with some documents via a Pacer account leads us to suggest that if a document does not appear when you are clicking on it from Internet Explorer you may want to try using Netscape instead.

State Courts

Finding briefs from state courts is more challenging. Some state briefs are making their way to the Web. For example, in Florida, briefs filed in Florida Supreme Court cases are archived and available in PDF format. In other instances, a Google search will lead you to a state library collection which, while not online, may offer contact information for obtaining briefs. BriefServe provides access to New York and California briefs as well as U.S. Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals for approximately $25.00 per brief. Findlaw, CourtTV or CNN may provide you with electronic access in the instance of an highly publicized case or issue. Older state briefs may be available in microform - check with Hein or LLMC.

Hot News and Obscurities

Findlaw, CourtTV or CNN may provide you with electronic access in the instance of an highly publicized case or issue. Often LexisNexis(tm) and Westlaw(r), will also provide documents in a "Hot News" category. Our own LLRX provides valuable links to Enron documents - just search Enron from the front page or go directly to Stephanie Burke's article. E-Law also covers Enron and WorldCom.

For a selection of briefs from state and federal courts nicely arranged by subject matter, try BriefReporter. You can get summaries of briefs for free and pay for the full text. The cost for non-subscribers is $40.00 per brief or you can pay $35.00 per month and download briefs for $10.00 each. The briefs are obtained from attorneys so you can also scan the list of attorneys contributing briefs. New briefs are continuously added, but we didn't see any "collection policy" so there is no guarantee that your subject will be covered.

In addition to electronic, print and microform collections, some academic libraries catalog and maintain a collection of student briefs - usually from Moot Court or Jesup competitions. Check your library catalog for these materials.

So, what's the final answer? That along with the ease of electronic access comes the nagging reminder that we no longer have a definitive answer to "are these legal records & briefs available?" Once upon a time, the answer was simple: Yes, from the court, the parties or a legal publisher with a penchant for and interest in providing local and regional materials. Today, we researchers must be aware of these traditional sources as well as the possibility of electronic coverage and possess the necessary varied search skills to obtain the material in whatever format and from whatever source is most practical and least expensive. A balancing act to rival any winning legal argument.

Links Mentioned in this Article

American Law Sources On-line

  • Link: http://www.lawsource.com/

American Library Association.

  • Link: http://www.ala.org/washoff/property.html

Appellate Briefs and Records - Underused Tools for Legal Research

  • Link: http://www.jenkinslaw.org/collection/researchguides/


  • Link: http://briefreporter.com/


  • Link: http://www.briefserve.com/

CM/ECF system

  • Link: http://www.uscourts.gov/cmecf/cmecf_about.html


  • Link: http://www.cnn.com/

The Collapse of Enron: A Bibliography of Online Legal, Government and Legislative Resources

  • http://www.llrx.com/features/enron.htm


  • Link: http://www.courttv.com/

Department of Justice - Selected Briefs

  • Link: http://www.usdoj.gov/05publications/05_2.html

Eighth Circuit

  • Link: http://www.ca8.uscourts.gov/case/csFrame.html

Enron and WorldCom

  • Link: http://www.elaw4enron.com/

Florida Supreme Court Briefs

  • Link: http://www.flcourts.org/pubinfo/summaries/archives.html

FCC Index of its 1998 and 1999 Briefs

  • Link: http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/OGC/Briefs/

Finding Records and Briefs

  • Link: http://www.law.harvard.edu/library/


  • Link: http://www.findlaw.com/


  • Link: http://www.google.com/


  • Link: http://www.wshein.com/

Judicial Privacy Policy

  • Link: http://www.privacy.uscourts.gov/Policy.htm

Law Library Microform Consortium

  • Link: http://www.llmc.com/

PACER Courts - ECF/CM Participating Courts

  • Link: http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/announcements/
  • Link: http://www.sec.gov/litigation/briefs.shtml

Seventh Circuit

  • Link: http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/

Taming the Knee-jerk Reaction: Locating U.S. Supreme Court Briefs

  • Link: http://www.law.suffolk.edu/library/newsletter/01dec/01dec5.html

United States Department of Justice - Briefs

  • Link: http://www.usdoj.gov/atr/public/appellate/appellate.htm

Zimmerman's Research Guide - Briefs

  • Link: http://www.llrx.com/guide-gen/3/163.html