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Locating Legal Information in Primary and Secondary Resources: #2: Digests: An Index to Case Law

How to use specific legal resources.

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Digests: An Index to Case Law

Howard W. Hunter Law Library

Legal Research Guide #2

Digests: An Index to Case Law


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.

What is a Digest?

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.

Using the Digest System to Find Cases On Your Topic

1. The “One Good Case” Approach

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.

  1. Once you have a citation for a case addressing your topic you must find that case in a West reporter. (See Library Guide: How to Read a Legal Citation, for information about how to find a case by citation.)

    The reason you must find your case in one of these sets is because only West publications use the West Topic and Key Number System.

    The editors at West Publishing have organized the entire body of American law into general topics and subtopics according to legal issues. Within each topic, key numbers have been assigned to the issues and sub-issues. The topics and key numbers are the same in every West publication. Therefore, if you have a topic and key number for the subject you are researching you will be able to find state and federal cases that address the particular point of law using any West Digest.

  2. After you have found your case, pick one or more headnotes that relate to the topic you are researching—record the topic and key numbers for those headnotes.

    Each case in the West reporter system begins with one or more headnotes. A headnote is a small paragraph that contains either a fact situation from the opinion and the rule of law that the court applied to the situation, or an assertion of a legal principle.

    As you skim the headnotes you will notice that some deal directly with the issue you are researching, while others will have nothing to do with it. Choose only those headnotes that are relevant to your research.

    You will notice that each headnote begins with a boldface topic followed by a small key symbol and then a number. This is the topic and key number assigned to the specific legal issue discussed in the headnote. You will want to record the topics and key numbers for all headnotes you feel are relevant to your case.

  3. Now that you have a topic and key number, go to the West Digest that covers your jurisdiction (i.e. the court from which you want to find cases: e.g. your state, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court of the United States, etc.).

    West Publishing has prepared digests for the individual states, regions, individual courts or court systems (i.e. federal courts) and a key number digest that combines all jurisdictions, both state and federal.

    Several of the West Digests published correlate directly to the regional reporters (i.e. Pacific Digest and the Pacific Reporter). Generally, each digest will list the reporters that it indexes in the front of each volume. West’s key number digest system also includes digests for some individual courts. Examples of individual court digests are the United States Supreme Court Digest, which indexes decisions of the United States Supreme Court; the Federal Digest which indexes cases decided in the federal courts prior to 1939; the Modern Federal Practice Digest, covering 1939-1961; West’s Federal Practice Digest Second (a third and fourth series have also been published for this title); and West’s Bankruptcy Digest.
    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:
    1. Century Digest, 1658-1896
    2. 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

    1. 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.

  4. When you have determined which digest you will use, locate it in the library. With your topic and key number from the “good case” you can find the appropriate digest volume.

    Digest volumes are alphabetically arranged by topics like an encyclopedia. The spine of each volume will indicate the topics it contains.

  5. When you have found the correct volume, turn to your topic and to the section or key number.

  6. Under your key number you will find abstract paragraphs of cases that illustrate that point of law. Following the text of the paragraph are two citations—one to the regional reporter and one to the state reporter (if the state has a reporter).

  7. After reading the abstract paragraphs you can decide which case(s) is relevant to your research. You can then look up the case(s) in regional reporters.

  8. Don’t forget to check the pocket part under the same topic and key number to see if there are any new cases on your topic.

2. The Descriptive Word Index Approach

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.

3. Outline Approach

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. 

4. Using the Table of Cases/Defendant-Plaintiff Table

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)


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