Summarized from the Supreme Court website:
The Supreme Court's opinions and related materials are disseminated to the public in four stages.
1. Bench Opinions. On days that opinions are announced by the Court from the bench, the text of each opinion is made available immediately to the public and the press in a printed form called a "bench opinion." The bench opinion pamphlet for each case consists of the majority or plurality opinion, any concurring or dissenting opinions written by the Justices, and a prefatory syllabus prepared by the Reporter's Office that summarizes the decision. Bench opinions are made available to the public by the Court's Public Information Office. The text of each bench opinion is also disseminated electronically via Project Hermes, one of the Court's two opinion dissemination systems [the Supreme Court website is the other). The Hermes system is . . . [a service provided to] paying subscribers.
Caution: In case of discrepancies between the print and electronic versions of a bench opinion, the print version controls. Moreover, bench opinions are replaced, generally within hours, by slip opinion pamphlets and, in case of discrepancies between the bench and slip opinions, the slip opinion controls.
2. Slip Opinions. Several days after an opinion is announced by the Court, it is printed in a 6" x 9" self-cover pamphlet called a "slip opinion." Each slip opinion consists of the majority or plurality opinion, any concurring or dissenting opinions, and the syllabus. It may contain corrections not appearing in the bench opinion. The slip opinion pamphlets are distributed free of charge, while supplies last, by the Court's Public Information Office. They are also sold by the Government Printing Office. The text of each slip opinion is also disseminated electronically via posting on the Supreme Court website, usually within minutes after the opinion is announced. Slip opinions remain posted here until the opinions for an entire Term are published in the bound volumes of the U. S. Reports. The number of slip opinions published each Term has varied over the years from as few as 75 to as many as 170.
Caution: In case of discrepancies between the print and electronic versions of a slip opinion, the print version controls. Moreover, individual slip opinions are cumulated and replaced within months by preliminary print pamphlets and, in case of discrepancies between the slip opinion and preliminary print version of a case, the preliminary print controls.
3. Preliminary Prints. The preliminary prints of the U.S. Reports are the third generation of opinion publication and dissemination. These are brown, soft-cover "advance pamphlets" that contain, in addition to the opinions themselves, all of the announcements, ½ tables, indexes, and other features that make up the U.S. Reports. The contents of two or three preliminary prints will eventually be combined into a single bound volume. Thus, the title of each preliminary print includes a part number, e.g., Preliminary Print, Volume 545, Part 1. Prior to publication, all of the materials that go into a preliminary print undergo an extensive editing and indexing process, and permanent page numbers are assigned that will carry over into the bound volume. Official versions of preliminary prints are sold to the public by the GPO. The number of preliminary prints published for each Term varies from as few as 6 to as many as 12 separate issues, depending on the number of opinions issued during the Term.
Caution: Individual preliminary prints are cumulated and replaced about a year later by bound volumes and, in case of discrepancies between the preliminary print and bound volume versions of a case, the bound volume controls.
4. Bound Volumes. The fourth and final generation of opinion publication is the bound set of law books entitled United States Reports. The opinions and other materials contained in the preliminary prints are republished in this series of books. Prior to publication, all of the opinions and other materials that make up each volume undergo a final editing and indexing process. The official bound volumes are sold by the GPO. The number of bound volumes published each Term varies from as few as three to as many as five, depending on the number of opinions issued during the Term. Electronic versions of bound volumes issued for October Term 1991 and subsequent years are posted on the Supreme Court website after the printed bound volumes have been issued.
Caution: In case of discrepancies between the print and electronic versions of these bound volume materials, the print versions control. In addition, GPO Access includes, as a convenience to users, a database of unofficial versions of bound volume opinions issued between 1937 and 1975. This database was created by the Air Force and is made available as a finding aid only. Because neither GPO nor the Court has performed costly validation or authentication processes, the authenticity or completeness of the data cannot be verified. Only the bound volumes of the United States Reports contain the final, official text of the opinions of the Supreme Court.
Decisions of federal and state apellate courts can be found in periodically published Reporters. Trial court decisions might be available in on the internet.
Use the "Judicial Decisions" guide from the Library of Congress to help you navigate through this complex arena. The guide has a helpful section on how to read decision citations.
The Information & Resources tab has a wide variety of information about state courts, including a list of state court websites.
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