Struggling to find a topic for a legal research paper? Not
sure where to find potential topics for law journal notes or comments? You
might consider giving a circuit split a try!
What are circuit splits, anyway?
In United States federal courts, a
circuit split occurs whenever two or more circuit courts of appeals issue
conflicting rulings on the same legal question. Circuit splits are ripe for
legal analysis and commentary because they present a situation in which federal
law is being applied in different ways in different parts of the country, even
if the underlying litigants themselves are otherwise similarly situated. The
Supreme Court also frequently accepts cases on appeal that involve these types
of conflicted rulings from various sister circuits.
How can I search for circuit splits?
You can always track down current
federal circuit splits via a well-crafted search using appropriate terms and
connectors. The basic framework for a circuit split search in either Westlaw or
Lexis Advance should look something like this:
(circuit or court w/s
split) AND [insert terms or phrases to narrow the search]
This search looks for either “court” or “circuit” within the same
sentence as the word “split.” By placing that part of your search within
parentheses, you are telling the database to consider them before searching for any additional terms that you have added to
the end of the search. Just as the old acronym “PEMDAS” from high school math
class told you to always perform calculations within parentheses first, adding
parentheses to a search string in a legal database tells the it to run the
search inside the parentheses before running additional search operators in the
Finally, this search string has a
placeholder for you to insert some additional key terms to narrow down the
scope of your results. You could add the name of a particular federal law, a
legal phrase that commonly comes up in a practice area that interests you, or
some language narrowing your search to a particular topic. For example, I ran
this search and added “Americans with Disabilities Act” to the end of my search
to limit my search results to only those materials that included circuit split
language and that specific law.
Caveat: The databases are powerful, and a well-crafted search will take you a long way to finding relevant materials. But they aren't perfect and will still likely pull in results that don't actually involve circuit splits. The goal with a well-crafted search is to reduce the number of unrelated search results while also increase the number of relevant results.
Where can I search for circuit splits?
The following is a list of possible
resources to use in your search for recent circuit splits:
United States Law Week (Bloomberg BNA)
United States Law Week publishes a
monthly column that summarizes recent circuit splits. The format is easy to
navigate and allows you to quickly view the most recent judicial opinion
involved in the split and also provides a brief summary of the underlying issue
involved. This is a great place to start your research if you do not yet have a
particular practice area in mind or prefer to browse the material and get a
sense for the types of legal issues that are currently at issue.
Note: UNC Law students and faculty can access United States Law Week through our Legal Databases page. Once on the homepage for the publication, look for the "Circuit Splits" link in the "Key Features" box.
American Jurisprudence 2d (Westlaw or Lexis Advance)
American Jurisprudence 2d (“AmJur”)
is a legal encyclopedia that provides short summaries of the law on a variety
of topics in American law. AmJur entries will identify the precise issue at the
heart of a circuit split and provide references for example cases on both sides
of the split. AmJur is best searched with a specific practice area, legal
issue, or statute in mind, as the encyclopedia is designed for topical
American Law Reports (Westlaw or Lexis Advance)
American Law Reports (“ALR”) are a
series of annotations, or articles that provide an analysis of narrow topics in
the law. ALR annotations also include citations to relevant cases, statutes,
law review articles, and related annotations within ALR. A search in ALR will help
you find legal issues that are currently unsettled amongst the sister circuits.
Case Law Research
The traditional option for locating
circuit splits that most students are already familiar with is conducting your searches
within federal case law inside either Lexis Advance or Westlaw. As with your
searches in both AmJur and ALR, the search terms should include the basic circuit
split keywords — court or circuit /s split — along with chosen keywords that
will help to narrow the focus of the search. Make sure to give those additional
search terms some thought, as an overly broad search in federal case law will
produce thousands of unrelated results.
Legal News, Journals, and Blogs
Finally, another possible option for
learning about recent circuit splits is through browsing recent legal news or
checking out legal journals or blogs that regularly report on circuit splits.
The following are some suggestions for how to find this type of material:
Seton Hall Circuit
section in each volume that is dedicated to identifying current circuit splits.
It organizes the circuit splits by area of the law and provides readers with case
citations and summaries of the issues.
Advance, Westlaw, and Bloomberg Law all provide access to legal news databases.
You can run searches within those databases to find recent news articles
discussing circuit splits.
Attorneys and law professors often blog about federal
circuit splits. A Google search can identify law blogs that contain discussions
about circuit split issues for you to explore more fully in some of the other
suggested resources from this blog entry.
Posted by Melissa M. Hyland on Fri. September 22, 2017 1:28 PM