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Ask yourself: The case I am seeking was handed down by a court in what jurisdiction? A state court? A federal court? A special court such as the military or bankruptcy courts? Or, possibly you don't know.
STATE COURT: Use digest for that state; e.g., the Indiana Digest. Or, to search a group of states by region, use the Regional Digests (Atlantic, Northwestern, Pacific, or Southeastern. There are no digests for the Northeastern, Southern, or Southwestern regions.)
U.S. SUPREME COURT: Use either the U.S. Supreme Court Digest (West Pub. Co.) or the Digest of United States Supreme Court Reports (Lawyers' Coop. Pub. Co.).
FEDERAL COURT REPORTS (including the U.S. Supreme Court): Use the federal digest that covers the date of your case (if known).
SPECIAL DIGESTS: There are special digests for certain areas. The following is a partial listing. Our library may not have all of these sets.
SEARCHING ALL FIFTY STATES AND FEDERAL CASES; OR SEARCHING FOR A CASE WHEN YOU DO NOT KNOW THE JURISDICTION: Use the American Digest System; i.e., Century Digest, 1658-1896; First Decennial Digest and following, 1897 onwards; and General Digest for very latest cases. All these sets are shelved together in the library. Because researchers usually seek the most recent cases, you might proceed in reverse chronological order through these multiple sets of digests.
Now, ask yourself, must I search by subject (e.g., ABORTION or EMINENT DOMAIN), or by name of case (e.g., Hanratty v. Imperial Bedding Co.), or by popular name (The "Sick Chicken" case). Possibly, the definition of a particular word or phrase is germane to my research.
TO SEARCH BY SUBJECT OR TOPIC: Go to the Descriptive Word Index (DWI) volume(s), usually at the end of the digest set. Look under index words that are likely to have relevance to your problem. The appropriate index words will refer you to the section(s) of the digest set (in West digests, these are "key words & key numbers") where relevant cases are listed. Remember, the DWI volumes have pocket part supplements (at the back of the volume) just like the main volumes of the set.
Go to the appropriate sections (key words & key numbers in West digests) where you will find a "digest" (short blurb, short paragraph) for each case listed. Note that the name of the case and its citation (location) are provided at the end of each paragraph ("digest"). Once the relevant West key word & number are known, you can skip the DWI and go directly to the main volumes of any West digest to find identical or similar cases. Don't forget the pocket part supplements of these digest volumes where the latest cases are listed.
TO SEARCH BY NAME OF CASE: Find the Table of Cases volume(s), again usually at the end of the digest set. These tables are arranged alphabetically, A to Z, by name of case. For Hanratty v. Imperial Bedding Co., look alphabetically under "H" till you find the case name. Not only will you find the case name and citation (location), but also the subject words (key words & numbers in West digests) where this and similar cases are digested in the main volumes of the digest. Now you know where to find the text of the Hanratty case; but you also know that you can look in the main volumes of the digest, under the subject words given, to find additional cases that are similar to the Hanratty case. In case you have only the name of the defendant (Imperial Bedding Co.) but not that of the plaintiff (Hanratty), go to the Defendant-Plaintiff Tables volume(s), again near the end of the digest set, and search alphabetically under the letter "I" till you find Imperial Bedding Co. The full name of the case is given and you can now look under the plaintiff's name in the Table of Cases.
TO SEARCH BY POPULAR NAME: Find the Popular Name Table volume(s), again usually at the end of the digest set. Cases are listed alphabetically by popular name; thus, you would look under the letter "S" for the "Sick Chicken" Case. Assuming the case is listed, you will find the official name of the case, as well as the citation (location) of this case. To find additional cases, go now to the Table of Cases to ascertain key words and numbers under which our case was indexed ("digested").
TO SEARCH BY "WORDS AND PHRASES": If the definition of a particular word or phrase is important to your research, find the Words and Phrases volume(s), again usually at the end of the set. Look alphabetically under the particular word or phrase. Any cases that have defined that word or phrase will be given at that point.
TO SEARCH BY TOPICAL OUTLINE: Every topic chapter in the main digest volumes starts with an outline. If all else fails, OR if you are very familiar with a particular subject area, you could turn to the likeliest topic chapters in the digest and search through these topical outlines.