How to Find a US Case by Topic

How to Find a U.S. Case by Topic

There are several ways of researching case law by topic; one way is by using digests. Digests exist for many areas of law, both jurisdictional (e.g., by state or federal courts) or topical, (e.g., bankruptcy). The purpose of a digest is to let you see a very brief summary of cases on a certain topic so that you can determine which ones are relevant to the topic you are researching.

Determine the jurisdiction

Determine the jurisdiction: do you want to find federal cases or cases from a specific state?

Federal Courts

To research your topic in the federal courts consult the Federal Digests. Supreme Court reporters and federal case reporters are also usefull. See also the Supreme Court Reporters and the federal case reporters. In other words, consult:

  • Federal Digest covers the years to 1939
  • Modern Federal Practice Digest covers 1939 – 1961
  • Federal Practice Digest 2nd, 1961 – 1975
  • Federal Practice Digest 3rd, 1975 – 1988
  • Federal Practice Digest 4th, 1989 – present

Two Supreme Court digests which cover all Supreme Court cases (Supreme Court
cases are also in the federal digests):

  • West’s United States Supreme Court Digest
  • United States Supreme Court Digest, Lawyer’s Ed.


To find California cases on your topic, consult the California Digests:

  • West’s California Digest, covers 1850 – 1950
  • West’s California Digest, 2nd, 1950 – present
  • McKinney’s New California Digest, 1850 – 1974
  • McKinney’s California Digest of Official Reports, 3rd & 4th, 1974 – present.

Other States

West publishes 46 state digests. Coverage includes all of the states (except Delaware, Nevada and Utah), plus the District of Columbia. The Dakota Digest and the Virginia and West Virginia Digest each cover two states. For Delaware cases consult the American Digest system; for Nevada and Utah cases consult the Pacific Digest.


Many state cases are also reported in West’s Regional Reporter system. Each Regional Reporter has its own Digest, but the Pacific Digest is the only Regional Reporter Digest held at some law libraries in that area.


The American Digest system covers all state and federal cases.

  • American Digest: all cases through 1896 (KF 139).
  • Decennial Digest: (1st, 2nd, 3rd) cumulate each 10 year period following 1896
  • General Digests follow the last cumulated Decennial (KF141 Supp.).

Descriptive Word Index

To begin your research, start with the Descriptive Word Index at the end of the digest.

  • This will direct you to a broad topic heading and key number, or subtopic. The broad
    headings are arranged alphabetically throughout the set, much like an encyclopedia.
  • If you cannot find your specific term in the Descriptive Word Index, the outline of subtopics
    located at the beginning of each broad topic may help you locate the appropriate key number.

The key number or topic number is what you will need to locate your topic in the digest
volumes (e.g., in West’s digests, you will use key numbers such as Criminal Law 273.1(2)
volumes; McKinney’s Digest uses topic numbers such as Adoption §15.

Topic and Key Number

Once you determine the topic and key number you wish to use, go to that topic and key number in the main volumes.

  • Consult the short paragraphs (which are derived from the headnotes at the beginning of
    reported cases) which summarize the legal issues relating to your topic that were discussed in the court decisions.
  • Refer to the case citation at the end of the paragraph to direct you to the complete case. Do
    not depend on the abstracts; you must read the case itself to understand the decision and to determine its relevancy to your research.
  • If no cases have been decided on your topic during the time period covered by the digest, you will find a message such as “see outline for scope of topic.” You may need to consult an
    earlier or later digest to find cases on your topic.

One of the advantages of using West digests is that once you have identified a relevant topic and key number, you can go to other West digests and look under the same topic and key number and find other cases which may be relevant. For instance, if you have an interest in “Criminal Law,” 273.1(2), “Representatives, promises or coercion; plea bargains” in the Federal Digest, you can go to West’s California Digest and find cases discussing the same issue.

However, do not try to use the key numbers in West’s digests in McKinney’s Digest. Likewise, do not try to use the topic numbers in McKinney’s Digest in West’s digests. The key numbers and topic numbers will have no relation to each other; each publisher uses its own system.


See our Research Guide “How to Find a U.S. Case by Name”.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *