Permanent collection of books containing the official version of the full text of the opinions of the Supreme Court.

The earliest volumes of the United States Reports were privately edited and published as a part-time endeavor by attorneys who often appeared before the Supreme Court.Reporters, Supreme Court Because these early reports were named after their authors, they are known as “nominative reports.” The first four volumes of the United States Reports, published by Alexander J. DallasDallas, Alexander J. in 1790, 1798, 1799, and 1807, were not exclusively devoted to the Supreme Court but also contained cases from lower federal courts and even decisions of the Pennsylvania state supreme court. The second reporter, William Cranch,Cranch,William] with the approval of Chief Justice John Marshall, attempted to foster the early development of the United States Reports by encouraging justices to write opinions explaining their decisions. In 1816 the Supreme Court first appointed an official reporter. Its appointee, Justice Joseph Story’s close friend Henry Wheaton,Wheaton, Henry was not voted a salary by Congress until the following year.

Wheaton, along with Justice Story, was part of a small group of legal scholars who advocated the reporting of U.S. judicial decisions in order to assist in the creation of a uniquely American body of common law. Story, the foremost legal writer of his day and the author of several legal treatises, actively encouraged the creation of legal reporters for both federal and state courts. Under Wheaton and Story’s attention, the United States Reports became a model for the development of reporters from Maine to Kentucky. In a 1827 lawsuit between Wheaton and his successor Richard Peters, the Court found that the reporter held no copyrightCopyright in his reports because the decisions of the Court were in the public domain. By the late nineteenth century, the practice of naming reports of the Court after the official reporter was dropped. However, the Court reporter of decisions was still responsible not only for preparing the Court’s opinions for publication but also for arranging for the printing, distribution, and marketing of the United States Reports. In 1922 the Government Printing Office took over the task of publishing the United States Reports.

The Court still appoints an official reporter of decisions who, with a staff of approximately ten people, prepares its opinions for publication in the United States Reports. The reporter is legally trained and is hired after a distinguished career in the practice of law and legal publishing. The reporter is responsible for first checking the opinion (or opinions, when there are separate concurring and dissenting opinions) for typographical or citation errors. The reporter then prepares a detailed synopsis of the majority opinion (the syllabus), as well as the lineup, which indicates how each justice voted in the case and which opinions or parts of opinions they have joined. A small run of the final opinion is circulated as a preliminary print, but the first public printing is the slip opinion released on the day the Court reads its decision in the case. This version is also released electronically through an Internet bulletin board.

The opinion is then sent to the Government Printing Office for publication in the United States Reports. In order to make the decisions available sooner, they are published in a paperbound advance sheet version of the United States Reports. The permanent hardbound volume incorporates the advance sheets, using the same pagination and, in most cases, the same plates. United States Reports is widely distributed to public, school, and college libraries because of its low cost and because of the Government Printing Office’s participation in the Federal Depository Library Program.

The publication schedule of the government-produced United States Reports volumes has long been considered too slow to meet the needs of legal practitioners. Lawyers, as a rule, prefer commercial reporters such as Supreme Court Reporter and United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyer’s Edition; a weekly reporting service such as United States Law Week; or on-line databases on LEXIS, WESTLAW, and the Internet. Nonetheless, the authoritative legal style manual, the Uniform System of Citation (the so-called “Harvard Blue Book”), still designates the United States Reports as the official citing source for decisions of the Supreme Court, as do the rules of most federal and state appellate courts.

Further Reading

  • Cohen, Morris L., Robert C. Berring, and Kent C. Olson. How to Find the Law. 9th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1989.
  • Cohen, Morris L., and Sharon Hamby O’Connor. A Guide to the Early Reports of the Supreme Court of the United States. Littleton, Colo.: Fred B. Rothman, 1995.
  • McAllister, Stephen R. “Wheaton v. Greenleaf: A (Story) Tale of Three Reporters.” Journal of Supreme Court History 2 (1998): 43-64.
  • Melone, Albert P. Researching Constitutional Law. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown Higher Education, 1990.
  • Surrency, Erwin C. A History of American Law Publishing. New York: Oceana, 1990.

Reporters, Supreme Court

Reporting of opinions

Rose’s Notes on United States Reports

Story, Joseph

Supreme Court Reporter

United States Law Week

Wheaton, Henry