Boston Public Library
Government Information

Social Sciences Department, 2nd Floor, McKim Building, Central Library, 617-859-2261

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?

Massachusetts State Courts
Supreme Judicial Court Court of Last Resort
Appeals Court Intermediate Appellate Court
Trial Court of the Court of General  Commonwealth Jurisdiction

Superior
Court

District
Court

Boston
Municp.

Juvenile
Court

Housing
Court

Land
Court

Probate
Court

Federal Courts
Supreme Court of the United States Court of  Last Resort
United States Court of Appeals Intermediate Appellate Court
United States District Court Trial Court/ Court of General Jurisdiction

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?

To Find Cases

In an individual state

In U.S. Supreme Court

In all Federal Courts

1754-1939

1939-1961

1961-1975

1975-1987

1984- to date

All courts, state and federal

1658-1896

1897-1906

1907-1916

1916-1926

1926-1936

1936-1946

1946-1956

1956-1966

1966-1976

1976-1981

1981-1986

1986-1991

1991- to date

Use

Individual state digest (e.g. Mass. Digest)

West’s Supreme Court Digest

 

West’s Federal Digest

Modern Federal Practice Digest

West’s Federal Digest 2d

West’s Federal Digest 3d

West’s Federal Digest 4th

 

Century Digest

1st Decennial Digest

2nd Decennial Digest

3rd Decennial Digest

4th Decennial Digest

5th Decennial Digest

6th Decennial Digest

7th Decennial Digest

8th Decennial Digest

9th Decennial Digest, Part 1

9th Decennial Digest, Part 2

10th Decennial Digest, Part 1

General Digest (not cumulative)

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.