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American Legal History: Case Law

Finding Cases by Subject

Sometimes you might want to read cases to find out how the courts have dealt with your topic.  There are different methods for finding cases by subject, including:

Secondary Sources:  As mentioned earlier, many secondary sources provide case citations.  Examples include treatises, legal encyclopedias, ALR annotations, and journal articles.

West Digests:  A tool to help you find cases by subject.  They are arranged by predefined topics and subtopics and there are index volumes with each digest set to help you access these topics. 

For example, if you looked up “Land Use” in a West digest index, it could lead you to the topic of “Eminent Domain.”  You could then go to the appropriate volume of the digest (topics are arranged alphabetically) to find that topic.  “Eminent Domain” is further divided into subtopics that are called key numbers.  West key numbers will have a key symbol next to the number of the subtopics that looks something like this:

Key number 2 under “Eminent Domain,” for example, deals with what constitutes a taking as well as distinguishing between police and other powers.  You could go directly to that key number in the digest and find short summaries of cases, as well as case citations.  West digest sets can also help you find a case by name, such as Kelo v. New London.  They normally have a Table of Cases volume (or volumes) where you can search by case name in alphabetical order.

Because there are different types of courts and jurisdictions, there are different digest sets, including:

Online Case Law Sources