Note* This article comes from reading Iowa Legal Research. Although many of the principles will remain the same, it is important to say that these research articles are likely to be relevant to the state of Iowa.

Reading Notes

Segments of Chapter 1: The Research Process and Legal Analysis

Introduction to Iowa Legal Research

Legal research often has the same components including understanding a problem, locating a law, and using the law to resolve those problems.

There are many similarities between jurisdictions. However, there are also a lot of differences, mostly minor, but some are major. This book will follow Iowa’s laws and regulations for its purposes.

The Intersection of Legal Research and Analysis

Legal research and legal analysis are different, however they should not be done separately. For instance, it is relatively easy to look up material and case matter, but to know what material to look for, you need to conduct some legal analysis. You should have an idea of what questions your client has, what issues are at stake, etc. Then you can conduct legal research.

Types and Sources of Legal Authority

Once again, this is review from orientation, but will be covered all the same. (Practice makes perfect)

First, let’s examine primary authority, which is the authority to enact binding-law. Primary authority comes from one of two places: Enacted Law or Common Law. Enacted law are statutes and Constitutional provisions. Common law are rules established by the court.

Secondary authority is not binding law and comes from those commentating on the law. They can include treatises, encyclopedias, or casebooks. They can be helpful tools in conducting legal research because they comment on primary authority often.

Any research project will involve researching primary authorities.

Mandatory authority is a primary source of law that binds a court. For example, in Iowa, this includes the state constitution. Persuasive authority is material that is not binding law, but can be used to influence court decisions (such as a court rule in Nebraska influencing an Iowa court ruling).

Below is the hierarchy of authority:

  • Constitution
  • Statute
  • Regulation
  • Common Law

A statute must abide by the Constitution, a regulation must abide by the statute, and common law must abide by them all. However, common law can and will interpret if one authority violates another higher authority (i.e. a statute is unconstitutional).

Segments of Chapter 5: Judicial Reporters, Opinions, and Digests


This is another review of common law and case law. Common law is a law that has been established by the court and is seen as precedent for later cases. Case law is the collective body of common law. Instead of beginning your research with case law, we often begin by referring to secondary authority.

Court Systems

I know this might feel redundant, but a through understanding of the court system is very helpful for legal research. Below will outline the trial, intermediate, and Supreme Court for both Iowa and federal jurisdictions.


Iowa has a trial court with two tiers of appellate courts. District –> Court of Appeals –> Iowa Supreme Court.

Iowa District Courts
  • There is one district court for each of Iowa’s 99 counties
  • These courts comprise 8 districts for administrative purposes
  • Each district has general jurisdiction (they can hear both civil and criminal cases)
  • There are divisions within the district that has more limited jurisdictions for business, juvenile, probate, and small claims.
Iowa Appellate Court

There are nine judges who rotate on 3 person panels. They review the majority of cases that are up for appellate review. The Supreme Court can choose to review the cases decided on by the Iowa Appellate court.

Iowa Supreme Court

Comprised of 7 justices who hears cases en banc. They regulate the affairs of the court system in Iowa.

  • 92 District Courts – Iowa has a northern and southern district
  • 13 Circuit Courts – Iowa is in the 8th Circuit
  • 1 Supreme Court

Published Case Law

In order for a case to be considered “case law”, they need to be published. There are many court cases that are “unpublished” even if they are available online. Published cases are sent out in three stages: slip opinions, advance sheets, and reporters. It is important to make sure you are looking in the right reporter when looking for cases when conducting research.

Slip Opinions

Slip opinions are official but often contain no citation information because they are the first thing released. They can be difficult to cite because you may only have the court docket number.

Advance sheets

Because most cases are electronic now, the use of advance sheets has diminished. They were released as the public waiting for the publishing of the reporter (to make the case more accessible). The citation here will match the citation in the reporter.


There are two types of reporters: official and unofficial. Official reporters are released by the State and federal governments. The unofficial is by West and is there so that the release of reporters could be expedited. Iowa is in West’s Northwestern Reporter.

Reported cases are convenient because they offer several edits that made the case easier to read, cite, and find other relevant cases.

The remainder of the chapter is long with details pertaining to which reporters (official and unofficial) you can find Iowa reports and federal reports. Additionally, they discuss which cases are published, if there are supplements to the reports, and more.

This is all new information to me which is very helpful in understanding how to find cases (in print) and how citations are used.

Additional Notes

Judicial Sources of authority

Here is the organization of courts

  • District Court – Trial court – They make decisions based on fact. They’re decisions are not reported
  • Court of Appeal – Losing party can take their case to the court of appeal. The court opinion can only review material that is in the record. These are often reported decisions
  • Supreme Court – Is another appellate court. These cases are reported decisions and final

Court Decision Publications

Slip Opinions

A slip opinion is a decision of the court. Even though they are now online, these are still used

Advance Sheet

An advance sheet include several decisions in paperback using the same volume number and pagination as bound volume which eventually replaces advance sheets.


It is essential to cite your sources accurately. Doing so will cause a judge to become frustrated by fruitless searching. This could possibly lead to the judge fining you.

When to space: If there is something other than a single letter (i.e don’t space N.W.2d. but do space So. 2d)

National Reporter System

West starting reporting opinions to expedite the process of attorneys receiving opinions for use. Although they are not “official” they are published and used consistently. He gathered Seven regional reporters to organize the states geographically (with the hope of giving several states access to similar situations). Iowa is part of the North Western Reporter.

Components of the Case

  1. Title or Case Name
  2. Docket # underneath case name. This is used for citing unreported cases.
  3. Which court was used
  4. Date of decision
  5. Synopsis which summarizes the holding of the case.
  6. Headnotes are single paragraph summary of the key points of law in a case. These are written by the West editors so they cannot be cited as law. Their purpose is to help you understand the case and find other sources using the keynote.
  7. Attorneys
  8. Judge
  9. Text of the opinion (this will be the same regardless of the reporter used)
  10. Star Pagination may also be used (i.e. *687 in text) which is a citation in the text to pinpoint to the other reporter. This citation tells you where the page that citation is located on in the other reporter. Single star* is official while double** is in West. In print it is denoted by an inverted “T”

The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.

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