Quick Facts

  • 202,971 documents
  • 76,830 cases
  • 10,807,719 pages


TIME PERIOD: 1832–1978


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Related Subject Areas
American History
Constitutional Law
Intellectual Law
Political Science

Related Areas of Interest
American Civil War/Reconstruction
Civil Rights
International Politics
Legal History
U.S. Constitution
U.S. South
Victorian/Romantic Era
Westward Expansion
World War I
World War II

Frequently Asked Questions



What is a brief and what value does it have for researchers?
A brief is a legal argument based upon evidence, authorities, and precedents presented to the court for its consideration in support of applications, legal hearing and trials, motions or appeals. The brief presents both the facts of the case and the questions of law before the court, as well as the determination desire by the author(s).

Records in this database include pleadings, motions, trial transcripts and other documents from prior stages of the litigation. Reviewing records and briefs may help researchers explain why the court reached a particular decision and the arguments that prevailed or failed. Also, it may be useful to review petitions for certiorari in cases the court declined to hear.


What is certiorari?
A writ from a higher court to a lower one requesting a transcript of the proceedings of a case for review.

It is the chief means by which a case comes before the United States Supreme Court. Litigants who seek review by the Supreme Court petition the court for the writ and, if granted, the case comes before the court for disposition. The party seeking review is known as the petitioner, and the opposing party is the respondent. 


Why are records and briefs important to historians?
Briefs are the essential arguments of legal practitioners. Because it is a vast collection spanning 150 years, The Making of Modern Law: U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs, 1832–1978 offers an in-depth record of contemporary analytical writing by well-known social scientists, economists, sociologists, psychologists, social thinkers, scientists, historians and academics in the United States and around the world. As such, it is an invaluable collection in American legal, social and intellectual history.


What are the sources for The Making of Modern Law: U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs, 1832–1978?
For 1832–1883: The Scholarly Resource Collection, which is based on records and briefs of the Jenkins Memorial Law Library. The Jenkins, America’s first law library, is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

For 1883–1978: The Library of the Bar of the City of New York. This institution is a nationally recognized research facility and the single largest member supported law library in the United States. The Gale collection was filmed from printed books


Which Web sites do you recommend for further reading and discussion of the role of records and briefs in Supreme Court history?

We recommend the following Web sites:

Law Library of Congress

Cornell Law School Law Library (“A Research Guide by Matt Morrison”)

Duke University Law School

Georgetown University Law School


In Advanced Search, what does the “gavel” icon signify?
Granted or denied certiorari.


Can you provide some hints for searching the database?
Yes, some examples follow.

In a case title, the plaintiff appears first, the defendant second. For example, in “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans.”, Brown was the plaintiff and the Board of Education was the defendant. In cases on appeal, the loser in the lower court acts as the plaintiff or appellee.

The easiest way to find a case is to use the correct title in the Basic Search option on the homepage. Doing so avoids retrieving other cases that cite the one you are seeking. Entering Griswold v. Connecticut with “search type” set at “full text” leads to 877 hits. But limiting the search to “case name” produces the complete file on the case and nothing more. If you do not know the name of the case, further research will be necessary, or you should try an advanced search using different keywords to help locate it.

Say you are looking for the case argued by the future associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg which revolved around women being able to purchase beer in Oklahoma at a younger age than could men. It’s a noted class action suit of the 1970s – but you don’t know the name of the case. What do you do? If you know the basic facts noted above, in Advanced Search on three separate lines, type Ginsburg, Oklahoma, and drinking. The results list will render two different cases, and “Craig v. Boren” (429 U.S. 190) is the one you need. There are many other ways to locate a case whose name you don’t know. Of course another easy way to find a case is locate its U.S. Reports Citation number, which is often easily located via a search on the Web.

If you are trying to find a type of case, combine a few limitations on the search. For instance, if you are interested in the legal rights of poor African Americans in the 1960s it is possible to craft a search that will focus your attention to a few cases. Typing in “right to counsel” as a keyword search limited to the years 1960 to 1970 results in 1366 hits. Moving to Advanced Search in The Making of Modern Law: U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs, 1832–1978 and adding “poverty” as a key word results in 88 citations. Recalling the language of the day, type “Negro” as a keyword and this leads to 27 hits. If you want to focus on a single state, enter “Alabama,” and you will get 17 cites. Alternatively, enter “murder” instead of “Alabama,” and you will get eight cases in which the court considered the right of a poor black accused of homicide to legal representation.

Similarly, if you know there was a case on a particular issue but cannot remember the name or year, it is possible to narrow the search. For instance, suppose you recall hearing about a case in the 1920s in which a Supreme Court justice upheld the authority of the state to sterilize the mentally incompetent by saying something like “four generations of idiots is enough.” Go to the advanced search page and type in “sterilization” and “idiots” as keywords with the dates limited to 1920 to 1930, and you will get a single case, “Buck v. Bell.”