There are a number of ways to access case law. Any secondary source will refer you to cases and will often provide the appropriate citation needed to locate the case in the law library. In fact, secondary sources such as legal encyclopedias and law review articles are probably your best means of accessing cases on your topic.
In this guide three methods of accessing cases will be discussed. If, after trying these three methods, you are still unable to find cases on your topic, come to the Reference Desk for further assistance.
Digests are the major means of accessing case law by topic. A digest is both a subject index and a topical outline of case law. With rare exceptions, court reports are issued in chronological order. Without an index of some kind, this arrangement makes the task of finding all cases bearing on a single subject virtually impossible. A digest is such an indexing system. However there is one important distinction between an index and a digest: the digest not only lists the cases dealing with a specific subject, it also briefly summarizes or “digests” the opinions reported in those cases.
If you can find one case on your topic from any state or jurisdiction you can use a digest to find similar cases in your jurisdiction. The best place to find a “good case” is in a secondary source. Legal Encyclopedias, law review articles, treatises and ALR annotations are excellent sources to look for a case from which to start. Memoranda and briefs are also good starting points.
The American Digest System indexes the decisions published in all of West’s reporters. It is the “master index” to all of the case law in our country. Currently this system consists of:
Century Digest, 1658-1896
Eleven Decennial Digests:
First Decennial Digest, 1897-1906
Second Decennial Digest, 1907-1916
Third Decennial Digest, 1916-1926
Fourth Decennial Digest, 1926-1936
Fifth Decennial Digest, 1936-1946
Sixth Decennial Digest, 1946-1956
Seventh Decennial Digest, 1956-1966
Eighth Decennial Digest, 1966-1976
Ninth Decennial Digest, Part 1, 1976-1981
Ninth Decennial Digest, Part 2, 1981-1986
Tenth Decennial Digest, Part 1, 1986-1991
Tenth Decennial Digest, Part 2, 1991-1996
Eleventh Decennial Digest, Part 1, 1996-2001
Eleventh Decennial Digest, Part 2, 2001-2004
General Digest, Eleventh Series, 2004-present
Each of the above digests is a complete index to all state and federal cases reported during the time period covered.
If you are unable to find a “good case” on your topic by using a secondary source, you can find cases on point by using the Descriptive Word Index in any of the West digests. This index takes the same form in all West digests and is designed to help you find which topic and key number discusses your particular term or concept.
The Descriptive Word Index is usually located in the first or last volumes of the digest set. The Index works like any other index, except that it refers you to a topic and key number instead of a volume and page.
After you have located a topic and key number in the Descriptive Word Index you can go back to the “good case” approach and follow step c to the end.
There is also an outline approach to using the digests. Just go to the beginning of any digest topic. There you will find an outline of the key numbers used for that topic.
As with the Descriptive Word Index approach, after you have located a topic and key number you can go back to the “good case” approach (found earlier in this library guide) and follow step c to the end.
In addition to the “one good case” approach, using the descriptive word index, or using the outline approach, digests can help you find cases when you have only a partial citation. For example, if you know the jurisdiction, one or more names of the parties and a general time period, a full citation can be found by using the table of cases.
Digest in Electronic Form
Researchers can also access many of these same tools through the Library's Westlaw Patron Access subscription. Case in Westlaw have headnotes, topics and key numbers that allow researchers to create a custom digest. For more information, contact the reference desk.
(Last Revised 3/6/2013)
BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY
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