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Finding a Case

A guide to the various ways to find a case

Digest as Subject Index

Print digests, published by West, provide subject access to all reported cases. Brief summaries, or "squibs", of legal issues discussed in cases are arranged topically within a digest. Through its organizational structure, a digest also serves as a topical outline of case law. 

Topic and Key Number System

Each squib is assigned a topic within the West digest system. Topics are then divided into subtopics that are assigned "key numbers." The squibs with their assigned topics and key numbers are used as headnotes in cases in West's reporter sets.

Headnotes within a reported case simply summarize the different points of law and clue the researcher to which part of the court’s opinion is relevant to the issue being researched. The headnotes in cases, with their topics and key numbers, can be used, in conjunction with the digests, to find other cases on the same subject.

Components of the Digest

Main volumes contain case squibs (headnotes from cases) arranged alphabetically by topic.

Finding tools:

  • Descriptive-word index--detailed subject index for digests.
  • Table of cases--alphabetical list of cases, by plaintiff and defendant, in that digest set.
  • Words and phrases--judicially defined terms with references to case names and citations.

Finding cases in the West digests:

  1. Main volumes - If you have a case you know is on point, use topics and key numbers from that case’s headnotes to find other relevant cases in the main volumes of the digest.
  2. Descriptive-Word Index - West suggests that before you begin your search of the Descriptive-Word Index you analyze the problem to be searched and determine the following information:
    • parties involved;
    • places where the facts arose, & objects or things involved;
    • acts or omissions that form the basis of action or issue;
    • defense to the action or issue; and
    • relief sought.
  3. Topical analysis - At the front of each topic section is an outline with a breakdown of the topic and the key numbers that correspond to each sub-topic. Don’t underestimate the value of scanning through these outlines to see what key numbers may apply. This may be an additional step to use after consulting the Descriptive-Word Index which has helped you focus on a particular topic.

To make sure that you have the most recent cases, check the pocket part for the volume of the digest you are using and check any cumulative paper supplements that are available for the digest set you are using.

Digest Titles

Digests are generally organized by jurisdiction: federal, region, and state. All the digests here at Tarlton are located in the reading room on the main 2nd floor.

The current digest for federal case law is West's Federal Practice Digest, 5th.There are also digests for the U.S. Supreme Court. For state law, there is West's General Digest. Texas is one of the states that has its own, individual digest: West's Texas Digest, 2d, (1935-present).  For more information about digests, see also the library's guides to the U.S. Supreme Court and Texas law.

Online Research

Some commercial databases, like Westlaw and Lexis, include headnotes. Westlaw's Key Number System is available on Westlaw, and Lexis provides topic categories. Free case law databases typically do not provide headnotes and have little or no topic categorization.

For more information about online resources, see this guide's Free Online Resources page.