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Finding Cases Using Print Resources: Finding a Case by Topic

Learn how to find relevant case law in the MU Law Library / Last updated by Jacob Wood, JD '25

Now that you've selected the appopriate digest:

To start your research, begin with the Descriptive Word index at the end of the Digest you selected.

  1. 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.

  2. 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)).

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

  1. Consult the short paragraphs (which are derived from the head notes at the beginning of reported cases) which summarize the legal issues relating to your topic that were discussed in the court decisions.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 that 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 Missouri Digest and find cases discussing the same issue.