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Digests and Finding Case Law: Introduction to Digest Research

About Citations

Appellate decisions (also called opinions), some federal district opinions, and some specialty court opinions, are regularly published in the various reporter volumes.  Cases are published in reporters in the order in which they are received from the courts, an approach that makes it difficult to access cases without the case citation.


Case citations include the following elements: party names, volume number, abbreviation for the reporter, page and date.  For example, the citation : First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978) indicates that the case can be found in volume 435 of the United States Reports, beginning on page 765, and that the case was decided in 1978.


Digests provide a subject and topic approach for finding this information.  Reporters and Digests can cover certain jurisdictions, such as federal or state; or topics.  Examples of topical reporters and digests include: West’s Bankruptcy Reporter and West’s Bankruptcy DigestWest’s Military Justice Reporter and West’s Military Justice DigestThe UCC Reporting Service and the Uniform Commercial Code Case Digest.  Additionally, foreign countries may have their own reporters and digests.


Paper reporters are typically published by either Thompson Reuters (formerly West Publishing Company), or by Lexis.  Thus the digests are usually published by either Thompson Reuters or Lexis.  There are a few instances where reporters and / or digests are published by other sources.  For example, the Labor Relations Cumulative Digest and Index, which digests the Labor Arbitration Reports and the Labor Relations Reporter is published by Bloomberg BNA.

About Digests

To use digests for locating cases in print, begin by identifying the appropriate digest for the jurisdiction or topic being researched. For example, in researching modern federal case law, the appropriate digest will likely be the Federal Practice Digest 4th or 5th (KF127.1 .F43 4th), located on the first floor of the library.  By contrast, when researching Wisconsin state case law, the appropriate digest will be Callaghan's Wisconsin Digest (KFW 2457.C34) or West's Wisconsin Key Number Digest (KFW 2457.W47).  When searching within a specific topic, it may be helpful to search the topical digest.


As a practical matter, many state reporters and digests are also combined into regional reporters and digests.  For example, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota are combined to make up the Northwestern Reporter and Digest.  If the library does not have the digest for a specific state, or if the state digest is not current, the information might be found in the corresponding regional digest.  Take note, however, as not every state has a corresponding regional digest, so it may be necessary to search either in the Decennial digests, or online.  Note also that the West’s Key Number Digests will provide parallel citations for the state and regional reporters.  In addition, take note that any given digest may not be current, and so it is advisable to search online.


Digests are typically arranged alphabetically by broad subject areas, which are also subdivided into more specific subject areas.


With the West’s digests, the listings on the spines of the digest volumes correspond to the topics and key numbers* found within the volumes.  At the beginning of each topic is a section that details: Subjects Included, Subjects Excluded, and Analysis.  Analysis is a breakdown of the topic into its key numbers.  (Some digests include a scope note in lieu of Subjects Included and Subjects Excluded.)


Digests provide summaries or head notes and citations to relevant case law, but they do not provide the full text of cases cited. Head notes are not primary law, and should not be cited, but rather are intended to help the user find relevant cases.


A detailed subject index to the digest, called the Descriptive-Word Index, is a helpful tool, located at the end of each digest set. Use this to identify relevant broad topic and sub-topics (or key numbers) that are used in the digest. Digests also contain Table of Cases volumes at the end of the digest sets.  These are arranged alphabetically by the first name in the citation, and sometimes contain a separate Table of Plaintiffs, and Table of Defendants which are useful when parties’ names are known.


*One final word on topics and key numbers: When a topic and key number is found that relates well to one’s research, it becomes easier to search other jurisdictions as the topics and key numbers remain consistent throughout the West digest system.

Choosing the Correct Digest

To locate cases from all of the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, use:

  • Federal Digest - 72 volume set that includes cases before 1939
    Location: Archives: KF127.F42
  • West's Federal Practice Digest 4th - 114 volume set that includes cases from December 1975 to date, however the Marquette Law Library set is current through October 2016.
    Location: First Floor: KF127.1 .F43 4th
  • West's Federal Practice Digest 5th - includes cases from 2013 to date, however the Marquette Law Library set is current through October 2016.
    Location: First Floor: KF127.1 .F43 5th

For more information, see the page on Federal Digests

To locate cases from all federal and state courts, use:

  • Decennial Digests - each Decennial covers 10 years*, beginning with 1897
    Location: Third Floor: Range 304

 * The Ninth Decennial Digest consists of 86 volumes, published in two parts, 1976-1981 and 1981-1986.

* The Tenth Decennial Digest consists of 108 volumes, published in two parts, 1986-1991 and 1991-1996.

* The Eleventh Decennial Digest consists of 188 volumes, published in three parts, 1996-2001, 2001-2004 and 2004-2007

* The Twelfth Decennial Digest began publication with 2008.  (Marquette Law Library has v.1-56)

  • General Digest - used to update from the last available Decennial to the present
    Location: Third Floor, Range 304

For more information, see the page on Decennial Digests

To locate cases from Wisconsin courts, use:

For more information, see the page on State Digests

Cases from other states can be located by using regional or state digests, located on the third floor of the library. While not current, the regional digests include:

For more information, see the page on Regional Digests

States not covered by one of the current regional digests or individual digests may be covered in the Decennial digests as noted above.

Updating Digest Research

Digests are updated either by a pocket part, which is inserted into the back of the specific digest volume, or by a separate paper supplementary pamphlet shelved next to the digest volume that it updates. The paper supplementary pamphlets contain the most recent cases. Once the updates become too unwieldy, a new volume is issued. Another method used to update a digest is to create a new set, usually called a second series, third series, etc. While searching, be sure to check pocket parts, supplements and the most recent digest series.

A Word on Topical and Foreign / International Research

There are many topics or subjects that report cases in either topical reporters or other titles.  Additionally, the law library subscribes to some foreign and international reporters.  These may or may not utilize a digest as the finding tool.  This guide points to a few examples of topical and foreign / international digests.  Some include an index (often times called a general index).  Sometimes this index is volume specific, that is to say each volume of the title has its own index.  Sometimes there is an index for the whole set that is periodically updated and occasionally a title may include periodic indices interspersed throughout the set.

A Final Word

While this guide is intended to provide information regarding print digests, thorough research should not be limited to these resources, but should incorporate searching online sources as well.  For more information on digests and case research, please consult a reference librarian.


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This Guide was created by:

Jim Mumm

Marquette University

Eckstein Law Library