Locating Circuit Splits: Some Tips and Tricks

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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 string.

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 searching.

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 Review has a 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.
  • Lexis 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
Categories: Uncategorized

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