Georgetown Law
Georgetown Law Library

Case Law Research Guide

This guide details how to read a case citation and sets out the print and online sources for finding cases.

Contents

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Step One: Finding a Key Number

Before you use a print digest, it's best to already have one or more key numbers of interest. There are many ways to identify useful key numbers. If you already have a good case on your topic, simply find the case in a West reporter (or on Westlaw) and look at the headnotes to find the appropriate key number(s).

If you don't already have a good case, there are numerous methods of finding one. Secondary sources, annotated codes, and terms & connectors searching can be helpful strategies for finding a leading case on a topic. Once you have found a case, look at the case in a West reporter (or on Westlaw) to find the relevant key number(s). Now you're ready for step two.

Another method is to use the Descriptive-Word Index (usually the last few volumes of the print digest set) to locate a key number. Many researchers find the digest's index difficult to use because the terms used in the index may not be the terms you would use to describe your issue. Most indices have cross-references to lead you to the right index terms for your topic. You might have to search synonyms to find the appropriate index term.

Step Two: Selecting the Appropriate Digest

The second step is usually straightforward: choose the best digest for your needs. The following lists major digests and the jurisdictions or reporters they cover. Digests are located near their reporter. 

Supreme Court Digest
United States Supreme Court Digest Supreme Court, 1754 - present  
Federal Courts Digests
Federal Digest (red) Federal (Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement), pre-1939  
Modern Federal Practice Digest (green) Federal (Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement), 1940 - 1960  
Federal Practice Digest 2d (blue) Federal (Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement), 1961 - 1975  
Federal Practice Digest 3d (red) Federal (Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement), 1975 - 1987   
Federal Practice Digest 4th (blue) Federal (Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement), 1983 - present   
Federal Practice Digest 5th (red) Federal (Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement), 2003 - present   
Regional Digests
Atlantic Digest 1st and 2d series, see volumes for dates: CT, DC, DE, ME, MD, NH, NJ, PA, RI, VT No longer updated by the Law Library.
North Eastern Digest No longer published, see volumes for dates: IL, IN, MA, NY, OH No longer published.
North Western Digest 1st and 2d series, see volumes for dates: IA, MI, MN, NE, MD, SD, WI No longer updated by the Law Library.
Pacific Digest Four series, see volumes for dates: AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, KS, MT, NV, NM, OK, OR, UT, WA, WY No longer updated by the Law Library.
South Eastern Digest 1st and 2d series, see volumes for dates: GA, NC, SC, VA, WV No longer updated by the Law Library.
Southern Digest No longer published, see volumes for dates: AL, FL, LA, MS No longer published.
State Digests
West's District of Columbia Digest 1st and 2d series  
West's Maryland Digest 1st and 2d series  
Virginia and West Virginia Digest    
All Jurisdictions
American Digest   1658 - present (Century Edition, 1st Decennial - 11th Decennial) Also known as the Decennial Digest. Law. No longer updated by the Law Library.

Step Three: Reading Headnotes and Cases

Step three is simply to find your print digest, select the volume containing your topic, find your key number, and read the headnotes listed to find useful cases (or retrieve headnotes with your key numbers on Westlaw).

It is important never to cite a case directly from the print digest because the headnote contains only limited information about the case. Instead, note the citations of interest. Then use the citations to find and read the opinions in full. Print digests are updated by pocket parts and paper supplements, so don't forget to check those for the newest cases.

Helpful Hints

  • If you are researching many years of cases, you may have to use more than one print digest to cover the desired time period. Older cases may be just as important as newer cases for some legal issues.
  • A useful feature of a print digest is the lists of cases by name in tables found at the end of the digest. Using these name tables, you can find a case for which you have a name but no citation. 
  • A few digests are published by companies other than West. For example, there is a digest to accompany the Lawyers Edition Supreme Court reporter, which is published by Lexis. Although each of these companies has a unique classification system each with its own set of topics and subtopics, the basic system is similar to a West digest: find the appropriate topic and subtopic, then look under that combination to find descriptions of and citations to cases on point. Once you are comfortable using one digest system, you will find it easy to use others.