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Case Law

One of the functions of our court system is to figure out how to apply a statute, rule, code, or regulation when given certain facts. To make sure that similar cases are treated equally, the Colorado Supreme Court publishes its interpretation of those laws. Lower courts are then required to follow the same interpretation. This type of law is called case law.

A Note on Common Law

Most case law is interpreting other law, like statutes or constitutions. Common law is original law first created hundreds of years ago. Courts have been refining that law ever since. Sometimes the legislature ends the common law by creating statutes to take its place.

How Case Law is Organized:

While statutes are neatly organized by subject, case law is published in books (called reporters), by the date the case was decided. This will make it a little more difficult to find cases that are important to your issue. However, when a case is cited, it allows the reader to find the right book to be able to read the case. 

Example Citation:

Brown-Bears v. Goldilocks, 123 P.3d 456, 459 (Colo. 2017).

  • Name of the Case: Brown-Bear v. Goldilocks - The names of the parties become the name of the case. In the citation, the names may be italicized or underlined.
  • Reporter: 123 P.3d 456, 459 - the next part of the citation will tell in which book the case is printed. From the example above:
    • Book Number: 123 P. 3d 456, 459 - This is the specific book where the case is printed.
    • Reporter Series: 123 P.3d 456, 459 - Colorado cases are published in the Pacific Reporter. That’s what the “P.” stands for in the sample citation. This sample case is found in the third series of the Pacific Reporter.
    • Page Number: 123 P.3d 456, 459 - The start of the case appears on this page of the book.
    • Pinpoint: 123 P.3d 456, 459 - A pinpoint provides the exact page in the reporter where specific information may be found. This allows the reader to quickly get to the important part of the case, without having to read the whole case. Not all citations may have a pinpoint page number. 
  • Court and Year: The last part of the citation lets the reader know which court decided the case and in what year. A Colorado Supreme Court case will be abbreviated (Colo.). A Court of Appeals case is abbreviated (Colo. App.).

Starting your Research in Case Law:

  • Annotations: The company that compiles the statutes often includes a sentence or two from cases that relate to that section of law. This snippet of information is called an annotation. Annotations often provide a start to a search, but they may not be all the case law there is on a topic. To continue your research, you will need to read the whole case and view the cases that are cited in that case.
  • Pulling up Specific Cases: To pull up cases using Google Scholar, type the reporter information from the case citation into the search bar, select the case law button below the search bar, and then hit enter. Click on your case.
    • This opens the full case. As you read through the case, you may find the court cites to other linked cases.
    • Then in the ‘How Cited’ box at the top of the page, you will be able to see a list of cases that have cited to this case.
  • Broad Search of Case Law: The most difficult way to search case law is by entering a term or quote and seeing what cases result. Here are some tricks for searching case law in Google Scholar that may help make that search more manageable:
    • “Quotations”: Quotations around words will only bring up cases with that exact wording.
    • AND: Using “AND” between words will bring up cases where both words are in the case in any order.
    • AROUND(n): This search will list cases where certain words are near each other. For example:
      • dog AROUND(5) bite
      • This will search for cases where “dog” appears within 5 words of “bite”.

Determine if you Found a Good Case:

Once you find a case, you will need to keep researching to make sure the law, in that case, is still good law. Case law is continually evolving and only applies in narrow circumstances. Here are some things to look at when you find a case.

  • It’s still current: A higher court may have overturned that law. Or the same level of court may have reversed itself with a different law that is in effect today.
  • It fits your case: Courts narrowly create case law to apply to a particular set of facts. If facts are sufficiently different in your case, then the case you found may not apply to your situation.
  • There is a better case: Cases from a higher court are more persuasive. Newer cases may also be more persuasive. And cases where the facts surrounding the legal issues are more similar to your own, are more persuasive.

Look at other cases that have cited to the case that you found. Are those newer cases adding to the case law, reaffirming the case law, or minimizing the effect of the case law? Or has a higher court weighed in with a different answer altogether?

Ways to Use Case Law in your Arguments:

One argument style is to compare your case with another that has similar facts or is based on similar law. You would then argue that:

  • Different Case = Different Result: The facts surrounding the issues in the case law are sufficiently different than the facts surrounding the issue in my case. So, this case law does not apply to my case. My case should be decided differently. Or,
  • Similar Case = Same Result: The facts surrounding the issues in the case law are similar enough to the facts surrounding the issues in my case. So, this case law does apply to my case. My case should be decided similarly. Or,
  • Extreme Difference = Same Result: The facts surrounding the issues in the case law are far worse/better/more complicated than the facts in my case. Because this case law was applied when given those extreme facts, it should easily be applied given the less extreme facts of my case. My case should be decided similarly.

How to Use Case Law in Your Writing:

There are a few ways to weave cases into your argument.

  • Simple Citation: If you make a simple statement of law, then one style is to only include the citation from the case. This citation method is good when you are using the case law to support a general statement of law. Some examples,
    • Trespass does not occur when the landowner gives implied consent. Brown-Bears v. Goldilocks, 123 P.3rd 456, 461 (Colo. 2177).
    • Pets obtained before the marriage are not considered marital property. In Re Marriage of Targaryen, 123 P.3d 111, 115 (Colo. App. 2156).
  • Parenthetical Citation: In this method, you would include a one sentence statement with the citation that includes a key fact from the case. You would use this method if that fact strengthens your argument. Some examples are:
    • Trespass does not occur when the landowner gives implied consent. Brown-Bears v. Goldilocks, 123 P.3rd 456, 461 (Colo. 2177) (holding that a welcome mat and an open door does not establish implied consent).
    • Pets obtained before the marriage are not considered marital property. In Re Marriage of Targaryen, 123 P.3d 111 (Colo. App. 2156) (finding that dragons were separate property despite the expense and care provided by both spouses during the marriage).
  • Paragraph Citation: Sometimes a case is so relevant to your case, or so crucial to your argument, that you will want to go into more detail about that case. This is when you would provide a more detailed written explanation about that case and compare that case to your own. For example,
    • Topic/Transition:In re Targaryen is a key case to understanding how courts should factor pets into marital assets. In Re Marriage of Targaryen, 123 P.3d 111 (Colo. App. 2157).”
    • Facts of that Case: “In the Targaryen case, the Petitioner received three dragons as a gift before the marriage. Id. at 113. The Respondent met and married the Petitioner after she had obtained the dragons. Id. Respondent spent many hours feeding and training the dragons during the marriage. Id. at 115.
    • Law from that Case: “The Targaryen court acknowledged that most property that is obtained by one spouse before the marriage, but then is invested in by the other spouse during the marriage, is usually considered marital property. Id. at 123.
    • Application and Holding of that case: “However, the Court found that because pets are living beings that form attachments to their initial owners, and the dragons are still strongly attached to the Petitioner, the traditional rules of real property do not apply to pets. Id. at 125.”
    • Apply to your case. Let the court know why you spent so much time and detail discussing this case. For example, “The Targaryen case is important to understanding this case because …”

Where to Find Case Law:

To look up cases, you may use a legal research program such as LexisAdvanced or WestlawNext. Or you may read the case in a book called a reporter. These items are only available at select libraries. The Colorado Supreme Court Library has free public access to LexisAdvanced and reporters with Colorado cases. Or, many cases are available online for free using Google Scholar.

Legal Research is Hard

You may want to consider hiring a lawyer to do this part of the case for you. In the contact options below, select Find a Lawer to start that search. Or, you can search for a nearby clinic or legal aid organization. Take a look at the Event Calendar for classes and ask-a-lawyer events. Finally, try stopping by a nearby law library for help using legal resources.

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