Research Tip: How to Quickly Find (for Free) Cases Supporting a Rule of Law

Often when writing a legal memo I come to a point where I want to recite a widely accepted rule of law, like a canon of statutory interpretation. For example, when interpreting a statute the court must determine and give effect to the intent of the legislature. I know there are hundreds of cases which recite this principle. But in legal writing any rule of law should be supported by citation to authority. Running a search on LexisNexis or Westlaw could be expensive. The solution is to search the Illinois Supreme Court website for an opinion supporting the rule of law. Here’s how to do it:

  1. The Illinois Supreme Court website does not make it easy to find the opinions search page. If you click on the opinions link from the main page, you come to a list of recently released opinions. Scroll to the bottom of the page and find the “For opinions older than 90 days, please go to our Opinions Archive page.” Click on Opinions Archive. Then scroll to the bottom of that page and you’ll finally find the search opinions search box.
  2. Now search for the proposition or rule of law. Use quote marks when appropriate to get the best results. Here I typed “legislative intent” (quote marks included).
  3. Click Search
  4. Click on the first result (note that the first result may change as new opinions are added to the website).
  5. Its a 2002 case from the Fifth District Illinois Appellate Court (Balmoral Racing Club, Inc. v. Topinka)
  6. Use your web browser’s search function (Ctrl-F in Firefox) to find “legislative intent” within the current page.
  7. That finds the following paragraph:
    • “The cardinal rule of statutory interpretation, to which all other rules are subordinate, is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature. People v. Maggette, 195 Ill. 2d 336, 348 (2001). In determining the legislative intent, a court should first consider the statutory language. This is the best means of determining the legislative intent. Maggette, 195 Ill. 2d at 348. A court must consider the entire statute and interpret each of its relevant parts together. If legislative intent can be ascertained from the statute’s plain language, that intent must prevail without resort to other interpretive aids. Paris v. Feder, 179 Ill. 2d 173, 177 (1997).”
  8. Now I can cite to People v. Maggette to support the “intent of the legislature” canon in my memo. You should probably look at the Maggette opinion to make sure its a case you want to cite (i.e. the case doesn’t come to the opposite conclusion that you are asking the court to come to in your case). You can probably find the Maggette opinion by following the steps below.

If I wanted to cite to Balmoral Racing Club, Inc. v. Topinka in the above example I would:

  1. Go back to the opinions search page and search for “Balmoral Racing Club, Inc. v. Topinka” (quotes included).
  2. Click on the first result.
  3. It is the 2003 Second District case (People v. Harrell).
    • You can tell its a 2003 case because the url: /august/html/2020026.htm is in the 2003 folder on the court’s website.
  4. Use your web browser’s search function to find “Balmoral Racing Club, Inc. v. Topinka” within the current page.
  5. That brings you to:
    • “Moreover, we must construe criminal statutes narrowly in favor of the accused (In re Detention of Tiney-Bey, 302 Ill. App. 3d 396, 400 (1999)) and so that no portion of the statute is rendered meaningless (Balmoral Racing Club, Inc. v. Topinka, 334 Ill. App. 3d 454, 459 (2002)).”
  6. There you have it. The full cite to Balmoral Racing Club, Inc. v. Topinka.
  7. It was not a problem here, but sometimes you can’t get a pin-point cite to the partition of the case supporting your legal proposition. You should use pin-point cites for almost all citations. You don’t want the judge (or law clerk) to have to read the entire case to find the point of law for which you cited the case. But better to exclude a pinpoint than fail to support a rule of law with citation to authority.

This method of finding a reporter citation to a case does not work when searching for a case that is relatively new because that case is not yet likely to be cited in other cases.