Law Research Guides: Cases - How To Find Them In Print

Revised Jan. 13, 2015 AJB, Revised Apr. 1, 2013 VT
Created Sept. 4, 2000

Background

The West Digest System is a subject index to Federal and State case law. West uses the Topic and Key Number System to classify cases. Beginning with over 400 broad topics, it then divides each topic into subtopics which are assigned a number called a "Key Number." Each Key Number deals with a single legal issue. Under each Key Number are short abstracts from cases that have discussed that issue. These abstracts are called "headnotes." Headnotes that touch on various legal issues could be classified under more than one Topic and Key Number. By using the Topic and the Key Numbers together, one can find cases on any subject.

 Finding a Case By Topic

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Always start with the appropriate set of West's Digests. For cases after 1935 use Florida Digest 2d; For cases prior to 1935, use the Florida Digest [First Series]. Get the volumes labeled "Descriptive Word Index". The Descriptive Word Index tells you what Topic or Topics and Key Number or Key Numbers to look for in the Digest. Look up a word or phrase in the Descriptive Word Index. The relevant Topic and Key Numbers to search will be referenced there. Take note of all the relevant ones. If there are none, think of alternate terms to search. Remember to always check the pocket parts and any paper supplements!
  2. The Descriptive Word Index will direct you to look in the Digest under a specific topic and key number. Choose the digest volume which corresponds to the top and turn to the page containing the relevant key number. (Topics are in alphabetical order, while Key Numbers are in numerical order.) You will see head notes from cases that have described the issue you are looking for. The headnote also gives you the name of the case, the court and the legal citation of the case. Using the citation, proceed to Step 3 to find the case.
  3. Use the citation to find the case that you are looking for. In a proper citation the first number indicates the volume number, the abbreviation indicates the reporter (see the UM Law Library Guide on Abbreviations for help), the final number is the page number that the case begins on. Once you have found the case, look at the headnotes at the beginning of the case. To skip directly to the part of the case which discusses that headnote, find the corresponding number marked with brackets in the body of the case text.

Important: Another good way to find a case by topic is to skip the Descriptive Word Index and go directly to the appropriate Topic within the Digest. This approach works if you already have a good idea of which Topic to research. (There is a list of available Topics at the beginning of each Digest volume.) At the beginning of each Topic is an outline of that topic called an Analysis. Using the Analysis one can find the appropriate subtopics and Key Numbers to use. The Analysis will also give you ideas about what other subjects might be relevant to your research that are covered elsewhere in the Digest.

 More About the West Digest System

  • Another feature of West's Digests is called Words and Phrases. The Words and Phrases volumes contain headnotes from cases that have defined a legal word or phrase. (Cases are only cited when a specific word or phrase is defined in the case, not just if the case is about a concept.) When your research involves interpretation of a specific legal term, try using Words and Phrases first.
  • If you already know one relevant case, you can use the headnotes from that case to find other similar cases without having to consult the Descriptive-Word Index. Simply locate the topic of the headnote in the appropriate digest volume, and then locate the key number in that volume. The initial case you found will appear in that section as well as any other cases on the same topic.

 Updating Your Digest Research

To maximize your research it is important to find the most recent cases available. Look in the pocket parts of the volume (published annually) or any paperback supplements on the shelf. For even more currency go the reporter volumes and look at the most recent "Advance Sheets" or paperback supplements published since the close of coverage in the pocket part. For example, if the Pocket Part in the digest states that it closes with cases reported in the Federal Reporter, Third Series at 203 F3d 18, then you need to search only the advance sheets after 203 F3d 18. Search the Digest section of the advance sheets under your chosen Topic(s) and Key Number(s) to find the most recent cases on your subject.

 Finding a Case By Name of the Litigants

Look in the Table of Cases (and/or the Defendant-Plaintiff volumes of the older sets) volumes of the digest where cases are listed alphabetically by name of Plaintiff or Defendant respectively. Each entry includes the citation to the case and any parallel cites, citations to later actions within the same case and the TOPICS and KEY NUMBERS that classify the case.

 West Digests in the UM Law Library

State Digests

  • Florida Digest [First] and West's Florida Digest Second, (Florida Collection, States Collection and Reference; Reference does not have the [1st ] Series). Cover Florida State Court Cases and Federal Cases Originating in a Florida Court.
  • West's California Digest, First and Second, (States Collection).
  • West's Illinois Digest, Second and Illinois Digest [First], (States Collection).
  • West's Massachusetts Digest [First] and Second, (States Collection).
  • West's New York Digest, Third and Fourth; Abbot New York Digest, Second, (States Collection).
  • West's Pennsylvania Digest, Second and Vale Pennsylvania Digest [First], (States Collection).
  • West's Texas Digest [First] and Second, (States Collection).

Federal Digests

 Selected Case Reporters in the UM Law Library

Federal Courts

Florida State Courts

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QUOTE
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QUICKLINKS

Training
Library Hours
Library Staff
Ask a Librarian

ACCESSING DATABASES FROM OFF-CAMPUS OR USING WIRELESS
Instructions: Video  |  Text

HELPFUL PHONE NUMBERS

Library Reference: 305-284-3585
Library Circulation: 305-284-3563
Automated Operator: 305-284-2250
Copy Center: 305-284-3272
Computer Help Desk: 305-284-5297

 

QUOTE
"Perhaps the two most valuable and satisfactory products of American civilization are the librarian on the one hand and the cocktail in the other."
- Louis Stanley Jast, Librarian