Finding Court Cases
Why is case law important?
In the American justice system, we rely on the courts to test the laws established by the legislature, agencies, and decisions of other courts. Our system works on a system of precedent; prior decisions of the same court, or a higher court, which a judge must follow in deciding a subsequent case presenting similar facts and the same legal problem, even though different parties are involved and many years may have elapsed. The use of precedent establishes a consistency throughout the court system.
How are the state and federal courts organized?
Where do I start?
Having a direct citation to a case is the easiest way to begin however; most times there is need for more then one case or expansion on a legal topic is necessary. There are a few ways to gain access to cases even if you do not have a direct citation or you have a legal topic to research. This is accomplished by using a set of books called digests. These books contain the finding aids to research case law by topic or plaintiff/defendant.
At the end of each digest is a standard set of volumes. They are Words and Phrases, Descriptive Word Index, Table of Cases and the Plaintiff-Defendant/Defendant-Plaintiff volumes. These volumes allow you to find cases based on a subject/specific issue of law. Once you isolate the point of law you may then proceed to the digest volume that lists the headnotes/summaries related to your issue. The headnotes/summaries contain the citation to the full text of the case.
Which digest do I use?
How do I know the information is current?
Each volume in addition to the bound book has a pocket part or pamphlet supplement. These two parts are how we keep the volumes up to date. It is very important that you always check these volumes to ensure you have the most current cases available.
How do I retrieve the cases at the BPL?
The Boston Public Library Research Departments work on a closed stack system. On a call slip available in Government Information, you must write your citation, your library card number and a seat from the reading room table. Write one citation on a slip for easy retrieval by our staff. The staff delivers the materials to your seat number in the reading room.