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U.S. Supreme Court Research Guide: Research By Document

Other Documents

This page describes the various documents that may be related to a Supreme Court opinion and where you can find them. For information about finding Supreme Court Opinions, see the General Research page of this Guide.

Case Documents

The docket sheet for the case is the formal record, maintained by the court, which lists all of the proceedings and filings in a particular case - usually in reverse chronological order. Essentially, a docket sheet (often just called "docket") is a list of all the briefs, petitions, motions, and other filings and actions that take place as the case progresses.

Once a case has been granted Writ of Certiorari, it is put on the Court's calendar (also called a "docket") and given a docket number. The docket sheet allows a researcher to find the document they are looking for, and the date it was filed.

Finding the Docket Number

  • If you have the citation to a case, look up the case in U.S. Reports, Supreme Court Reporter, or Lawyer’s Edition (see "Reporters" on this page), or in an electronic format. The docket number appears in the preliminary information at the head of the case. 
  • If you do not have the citation to the case, look up the case by name in the “Table of Cases” volumes in the Federal Practice Digest or in the United States Supreme Court Digest to get the citation; then look up the case to obtain the docket number. The docket number appears in the preliminary information at the head of the case.
    • The Library's subscription to these print Digests ended in 2013. Docket numbers for more recent SCOTUS cases are available online through the Supreme Court's website (under "Case Documents") and SCOTUSBlog (under "Merits Cases").

The resources below organize resources by docket, among other categories. Official docket information is found on the Supreme Court's website.

Types of Briefs

  • Before Grant of Cert
    • Petition for Writ of Certiorari: Petitioner asks for Court to hear case and gives the reasons why it should.
    • Brief in Opposition: Respondent gives the reasons why the Court should not hear the case.
    • Reply Brief: Petitioner rebuts the Respondent's Brief in Opposition
    • Amicus Brief: Amici curiae argue why the Court should or shouldn't hear the case. (Typically Amicus Briefs at this stage favor the Petitioner.)

When a litigant is dissatisfied with an appellate court opinion, they may file a Petition for Writ of Certiorari outlining the reasons the Court should hear their case. The Petition for Writ is a brief that includes the questions presented, the parties to the proceedings, the opinions below and how they erred, why the Court has jurisdiction, relevant law, and other information relevant to the Court's decision to grant cert. 

Find the docket for a particular case, and the Petition for Writ of Certiorari is generally the earliest item listed.

  • After Grant of Cert
    • Petitioner's Brief on the Merits: Petitioner argues why the Court should rule in its favor.
    • Respondent's Brief on the Merits: Respondent argues why the Court should rule in its favor.
    • Reply Brief: Petitioner rebuts the Respondent's Brief on the Merits
    • Amicus Brief: Amici curiae argue why the Court should rule in either party's favor. (Amicus Briefs on the merits may favor either side.)

When the Court agrees to hear a case, attorneys for both sides present arguments in written documents called briefs on the merits. These briefs contain legal theories, case-law analysis, and citations to both primary and secondary sources. When relevant, the lower court record may be submitted with the briefs, and may contain motions and pleadings, examination and cross-examination of witnesses, jury instructions, and the lower court opinion, if any. 

Sources online

Lower Court Dockets

A Petition for Writ of Certiorari is filed following a ruling by lower appellate court. As a result, the Petition for Writ is often included as part of the lower court's docket. Petitions for Writ that are not available among Supreme Court records (perhaps because the Petition was denied) may be found through the lower court's docket. Note that the docket number of the lower court would be different from a Supreme Court docket number.

Sources in the physical collection

Supreme Court Depository Libraries

Certain libraries around the country are designated Supreme Court Depository Libraries, including Law Library of the University of Minnesota Law Center and the Law Library of Congress. These libraries hold a complete collection of printed Supreme Court briefs, including briefs of cases which did not go to oral argument.

A listing of Depository Libraries can be found on the Supreme Court's website. If you are unable to locate briefs through the means listed above, please contact one of the listed libraries for assistance.

Oral Arguments

Attorneys also often present their arguments orally during appeal. Oral arguments usually consist of summaries of the main arguments made in the briefs and include attorneys' answers to questions from the bench. Records, briefs and oral argument transcripts may be used to shed light on a court's decision in a particular case or to develop an argument or line of reasoning in a similar case.

Audio Recordings

The practice of making audio recordings of all oral arguments began in 1955. The National Archives and Records Administration is the official repository for the Court’s audio recordings. Learn about the history of recording Supreme Court audio on Oyez, below.

These websites provide access to audio recordings of certain Supreme Court oral arguments.

Physical Resources

The following physical materials in the MLaw collection may include oral argument transcripts.

Historical Perspective

The Supreme Court Historical Society includes a curated list of Significant Oral Arguments of the Supreme Court 1955-1993, as well as a History of Oral Advocacy - Women Advocates which is an essay on the history of women who have advocated before the Supreme Court with supporting data.

“Slip” opinions are the first version of the Court’s opinions, which are posted on the Supreme Court's website long before they are printed in a reporter. A “slip” opinion consists of the majority or principal opinion, any concurring or dissenting opinions written by the Justices, and a prefatory syllabus prepared by the Reporter’s Office that summarizes the decision.

Like any other court, litigants before the Supreme Court must abide by specific rules regarding pleadings, timing, and other practice matters.

Due to their expense, overwhelming quantity, and relative lack of legal significance, the Law Library has very few trial transcripts. For important trials we may have excerpts from the trial records, partial trial records published in records and briefs collections, or second-hand accounts of the trial.

To identify trials for which the Library does have materials, either primary or secondary, consult the MLaw Catalog, using the defendant's name to search as a keyword, subject, or author. For civil trials, search under the full or popular name of the case. Trial transcripts not owned by the University of Michigan Law Library can be obtained by contacting the court in which the trial was held.

Note that, as a court of last resort, the Supreme Court rarely conducts trials. The primary interaction between attorneys and Justices in the Supreme Court are oral arguments.

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Special SCOTUS Documents: Master Reports

The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over certain cases, as governed by Article III, Section 2 of the U. S. Constitution and Title 28, section 1251 of the U. S. Code. Cases over which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction include disputes between States, usually over territorial or water rights. Cases that are tried only in the Supreme Court are known as "Original cases." 

Special Masters are individuals appointed to conduct a preliminary review of Original cases that the Court has allowed to be filed before it. Special Masters are usually experienced attorneys or retired judges who are tasked with making recommendations for decisions on the merits.

Since 2007, the Supreme Court has posted Special Masters reports on its website, and it has added certain older reports to the site, as well.