MARSHALL-WYTHE LAW LIBRARY
COLLEGE OF WILLIAM AND MARY

HOW TO FIND A CASE WHEN YOU DO NOT HAVE A CITATION
(USING A DIGEST)

INTRODUCTION

The principle of stare decisis binds courts to adhere to the higher court holdings in previous cases in the same jurisdiction. Therefore, in researching a legal issue, it is beneficial to locate cases with similar facts and issues to your topic of research.

Not all judicial decisions are published, but those that are published are usually issued chronologically by the court. Consequently, other sources, such as digests, must be used to locate cases by topic.

DIGESTS

Digests provide subject access to all reported cases. A digest is both a subject index and a topical outline of case law. Brief summaries (squibs) followed by citations to the full case are arranged topically. West Publishing is the major publisher of digests that cover all federal and state jurisdictions as well as some topical areas.

WEST TOPICS AND KEY NUMBERS

All digests published by West are arranged by topic and key number. West has classified the entire body of American law into approximately 400 topics. Each topic is then subdivided into as many key numbers as necessary to cover all the legal issues within that topic. In each digest, the topics are arranged alphabetically.

DEFINITIONS

Citation: a short-hand reference to legal authorities and precedents, such as statutes, cases and law review articles. A case citation includes the names of the parties, the volume number of the reporter, the abbreviation of the reporter, the initial page number where the case can be found, and the year of the decision.

Headnote: a description of a point of law which precedes the printed opinion in a reporter. Headnote are designed to assist the researcher in locating relevant material in the opinion and usually serve as part of a digest system.

Jurisdiction: the geographic area in which a court has power or the types of cases a court has the power to hear.

Key number system: West Publishing's organizational scheme for locating cases. Each legal issue discussed in a decision is summarized and assigned a topic and key number from West's classification scheme. The summaries and their respective topic and key numbers are placed in separate headnotes at the beginning of published opinions. A topic and key number can be used for research throughout West's digest system, at both the state and federal level.

STEPS TO USING A DIGEST EFFECTIVELY:

1. Choose the correct digest, either by jurisdiction or by topic.

2. Identify topic and key numbers that are relevant to your issue.

3. Check all appropriate bound volumes, pocket parts, and pamphlets to ensure that your research is thorough and current.

4. Use the specialty features of digests, such as the Table of Cases.

5. Use other sources, such as annotated codes and secondary sources, to supplement your digest use.

USING THE DIGEST

* When you have a relevant case from a West reporter:

1. Look at the headnote at the beginning of the case and identify those most relevant to your issue. At the top of the headnote, a topic and key number has been assigned.

2. Note the topic and key number. For example, CONTRACTS k 302

3. Go to the appropriate West digest and find the volume containing your topic and key number. You should find additional relevant cases.

4. Skim the summary paragraphs to determine which cases to pursue.

5. Note the citations under the paragraphs.

6. Consult the topic outline at the beginning of the topic for related topic and key numbers.

* If you do not have a relevant case and are unfamiliar with the topic:

1. Consult the Descriptive Word Index of the digest.

2. Look up all the possible terms you can think of related to your issue.

3. Note the topic and key numbers for your terms.

4. Select the appropriate volume that contains your topic.

5. Consult the topic outline at the beginning of the topic for related topic and key numbers.

6. Use the topic and key numbers to locate relevant cases and their citations.

* If you do not have a relevant case and are somewhat familiar with the topic:

1. Select the volume of the digest that contains your topic.

2. Consult the topic outline at the beginning of the topic.

3. Note the topic and key numbers that appear relevant.

4. Use the topic and key numbers to locate relevant cases and their citations.

* Finding a case when you have the parties' names:

1. Use the Table of Cases volume in the appropriate digest. These volumes are arranged alphabetically by plaintiff name and provide the full citation to the case.

2. Most digests also have a Defendant-Plaintiff Table in which cases are listed alphabetically by defendant rather than plaintiff.

MAKING SURE RESEARCH IS THOROUGH AND UP-TO-DATE

1. Check scope of coverage of bound digest volumes.

2. Check pocket part and its date.

3. Check interim pamphlets, if available.

4. If using a West digest, check the closing table (located in the first pages of the digest) on the last update to the digest for the volume number of the last bound volume reporter covered.

5. Check the digest sections in the next bound volume reporter and any advance sheets.

OTHER CASE-FINDING TOOLS:

If you know a case's popular name (such as "The Chicago Seven"):

1. Use Shepard's Acts and Cases by Popular Name (located in Shepard's room)

If you need cases interpreting a statute:

1. Use an annotated code that provides case summaries that interpret particular code statutory section.

If you need cases on a particular topic:

1. Consult secondary sources, such as encyclopedias, treatises, and law review articles, all of which often include citations to cases,

2. Consult a case finder. Example, Virginia Torts Case Finder

3. Consult a topical digest. Example, West's Education Law Reporter

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cohen, Morris L., Robert C. Berring and Kent C. Olson. How to Find the Law. 9th ed. (West, 1989). Chapter 4, "Case Finding" RESERVE/KF/240/C538/ 1989

Jacobstein, J. Myron, Roy M. Mersky and Donald J. Dunn. Fundamentals of Legal Research. 6th ed. (Foundation Press, 1994). Chapter 6, "Digests for Court Reports" RESERVE/KF/240/J3/ 1994

Kunz, Christina, et al. The Process of Legal Research. 3d ed. (Little, Brown, 1992). Chapter 5, "Case Law: Searching for Primary Authority" RESERVE/KF/240/P76/ 1992

FOR ADDITIONAL ASSISTANCE, PLEASE ASK A REFERENCE LIBRARIAN

February 1995

 

 

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