U.S. Supreme Court Records & Briefs

by Matt Morrison

  1. Introduction
  2. Understanding Supreme Court Briefs
  3. The Collection at Cornell Law Library
  4. Other Sources for Supreme Court Briefs


Briefs are valuable to researchers because they state the legal arguments the parties relied upon in pursuing or defending their case. The briefs also explain the facts of a case from a particular point of view. The records include pleadings, motions, trial transcripts and other documents from prior stages of the litigation. Reviewing records and briefs can help researchers to understand why the Court decided a case the way that it did and to explore the arguments that prevailed or failed. As well, it may be useful and interesting to a researcher to review petitions for certiorari in cases the Court declined to hear.


In 1821, the Supreme Court amended its rules by adding a requirement that the parties submit briefs. Published in volume 19 U.S. Reports (6 Wheat.), the rule stated that "no cause . . . will be heard by the Court, until the parties shall have furnished the Court with a printed brief . . . containing the substance of all the material pleadings, facts, and documents, on which the parties rely, and the points of law and fact intended to be presented at the argument." Thus began a practice that is a significant part of Supreme Court litigation.

Today, there are several rules governing Supreme Court records and briefs:

Rules 12, 14, 15 on petitions for writ of certiorari.
Rules 17, 18, 19, 20 on procedure when asserting other jurisdiction.
Rule 24 on content requirements of merits briefs.
Rule 25 establishing filing deadlines for merits briefs.
Rule 26 on the joint appendix, which contains the records from courts below.
Rules 33 and 34 governing document preparation, page limits, printing and style requirements.
Rule 37 on amicus curiae briefs.

Other relevant rules:

Rule 29 on filing and service of documents.
Rule 32 on models, diagrams, exhibits.
Rule 39 on proceedings in forma pauperis.

A typical set of documents pertaining to a particular case includes:

1. Documents filed when seeking review by the Court (Petition Stage): Petition for certiorari, brief in opposition, petitioner's reply brief, supplemental briefs filed by any party, and amicus briefs filed at the petition stage. See Rules 12, 14, 15, 33, 34, 37.

2. Documents filed after review is granted (Merits Stage): The joint appendix, petitioner and respondent merits briefs, petitioner reply brief, supplemental briefs, amicus briefs on the merits. See Rules 24, 25, 26, 33, 34, 37.

The documents are submitted in booklet format as required by Rule 33. (See Rule 39 for exceptions applying to parties proceeding in forma pauperis). Booklets have different colors depending upon the type of document and documents are of varying lengths. Booklet colors and page limits are stated in Rule 33(g). Rule 33(f) requires that forty copies of each document be filed, several of which are then distributed to Supreme Court briefs depositories. Cornell Law Library is one of these depositories. Thus, the library has a significant print collection of Supreme Court records and briefs. In addition, the library has a microform collection that supplements the print collection. Researchers should also be aware that other libraries have print and microform collections and there are numerous online sources for briefs. These are detailed below.

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The collection is available in microfilm, microfiche, and print formats depending upon the year with some overlap between the formats. Ask at the Reference or Circulation desks (Reading Room, 3rd floor) to see items from the print collection.

Key points to remember:

1. Collection begins 1832 ( 31 U.S. (6 Pet.)).

2. Print collection begins 1928 (Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila, 280 U.S. 1 (1929)).

3. The clerk of the Court places petitions for certiorari on the docket shortly after they are received and reviewed for acceptability. The docket number is in term year-number format. Remember that cases granted review are not necessarily heard in the same year in which they were docketed.

4. The most recent documents in microform are received approximately six months after filed at the Court. Print dockets from the Court's prior Term are received at Cornell Law Library in the late Fall. The most recent print documents on the shelf have filing dates 1 - 2 years back. It may take up to three years to complete the document collection for a particular case.

5. The collection is organized by U.S. Reports citation from 1881 (volume 104) through 1976 (volume 428). Print documents in this part of the collection are bound by U.S. Reports citation. The earliest time period, 1832-1871, is organized by year. Material from 1872 to 1880 is organized by nominal reporter citation.

6. In the mid-1970s, it became standard practice to organize the documents by Supreme Court docket number. For documents organized this way in microform, the earliest docket number is 74-635. The print collection organized by docket number, which is unbound, includes documents docketed in the 1972, 1973, and 1974 Terms. However, a continuous chronology of documents begins with items docketed in the 1975 Term.

7. The collection is supplemented with the multi-volume Landmark Briefs and Arguments of the Supreme Court of the United States, KF101.8 .K97. The Law Library holds the first 80 volumes, years 1793 to 1974. This is a selective set containing documents from well-known cases. The earliest cases, in the first two volumes, contain only oral argument summaries. There are briefs available dating from 1856.

Collection Details

Years: 1832 - 1888/89
U.S. Reports volumes: 31 - 132
Format: Microfilm
Location: Law Library 3rd floor, microform drawers 23G - 23K
Years: 1888/89 - 1915
U.S. Reports volumes: 132 - 241
Format: Microfilm
Location: Law Library 3rd floor, microform drawers 9A - 9J
Years: 1915 - 1930
U.S. Reports volumes: 239 - 283
Format: Microfiche
Location: Law Library 3rd floor, microform drawers 10A - 10F
Years: 1928 - current
U.S. Reports volumes: 280 (1928) - 428 (1976), for documents organized by U.S. Reports citation
Docket numbers: From October Terms 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 (various) - current, for documents organized by docket number.
Format: Print
Location: Please ask at Reference or the Circulation Desk for assistance.
Years: 1975 - current
Docket numbers: 74-635 - current
Format: Microfiche
Location: Law Library 3rd floor, microform drawers 10F - 12H.

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ABA Supreme Court Preview. Current briefs. A source for the latest documents, this site provides access to petitioner and respondent merits briefs. Briefs are accessed by case name or argument date. This is the site the Supreme Court references with its link On-line MERITS BRIEFS.

Briefserve. Recent and archived briefs. This fee-based site provides access to briefs from 1984 to present. The coverage is comprehensive and documents are delivered electronically in pdf. The cost is $25 per document.

Findlaw. Current, recent and archived briefs. Another very current source, the Findlaw Supreme Court site includes briefs from the October 1999 Term to the present. Access to briefs is by term of oral argument and then alphabetically by case name.

Lexis. Recent and archived briefs. From January 1979 through the October 1992 Term Lexis provides briefs for cases granted cert, joint appendices and selected special masters. For the October 1993 Term to current Lexis provides merits briefs for cases granted cert, special masters, and appendices to specific briefs. It can take up to 6 weeks for documents to become available. Lexis file name is Briefs. Follow this path to access: Legal --> Federal Legal-U.S. --> Supreme Court Cases & Materials --> U.S. Supreme Court Briefs.

Making of Modern Law Collection. The collection provides pdf copies of Supreme Court records and briefs covering years 1832-1978. For each case, a hyperlinked document list is provided. Amicus briefs and appendices are included. Be aware, however, that not all cases from the covered time period are available. Also, there are several cases in the collection for which one or more documents are not provided.

Office of the Solicitor General. Recent and archived briefs. This site provides access to briefs filed by the Solicitor General. The coverage includes briefs filed in the 1997 Term to the current. The briefs can be searched or browsed by keyword, type or subject. Html and pdf versions are available.

SCOTUSwiki Petitions to Watch. Part of the SCOTUSblog, users will find petition-stage documents for cases selected by the SCOTUSblog publisher that he believes have a chance to be granted cert. It currently covers from the October, 2006 Term forward. This can be a useful source for difficult-to-find cert petitions.

Westlaw. Recent and archived briefs. Westlaw provides various coverage of Supreme Court records and briefs divided into four main databases. The SCT-BRIEF database provides merits and amicus briefs for cases granted cert. Coverage of merits briefs begins with the October Term 1990 and amicus briefs begins with the October Term 1995. The SCT-PETITION database provides selective access to petitions for writ of cert and related documents. Coverage of granted petitions begins 1990, denied petitions begins 1995. The SCT-BRIEF-ALL database offers selective coverage dating from 1870. Joint appendices for current, selected cases can be found in the SCT-JA database. As well, users will notice links to briefs when viewing a Supreme Court case. The link is on the upper-left corner of the case display.

Various political, advocacy and other organizations make their amicus briefs available on the web. Use a search engine to find relevant sites or consult InSITE to help you identify useful sites. Also, American Law Sources On-line makes selected amicus briefs available on their site.
Researchers may also want to consult the Where to Find Briefs of the Supreme Court of the U.S., available at the Supreme Court web site, for additional information on accessing briefs. Also at the Court-s site is the Guide for Counsel in Cases to be Argued Before the Supreme Court of the United States, which has sections devoted to briefs and the joint appendix.

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- Matt Morrison -