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Circuit Riders: Legal Research Training for Non-Lawyers

Methods for Locating State Cases

There are four key methods for locating relevant South Carolina cases by:

1. Citation or party name;

2. Subject using West Topics & Key Numbers or the "One Good Case" Method;

3. Word or phrase; and,

4. Subject using a keyword or full-text search.

By Citation or Party Name

 

By Citation
The easiest way to locate a court opinion is by citation.

You may have the cite to a relevant case because someone gave it to you; you found it cited in another case; you found it cited in a secondary source; or you found it referenced in the Case Notes or Notes of Decisions included with a statute.

Case citations contain the case name, volume, reporter, and page number where the case begins. For example, the proper citation for the trespassing cows case that we use in the South Carolina Case Law section is Williams v. Smalls, 390 S.C. 375, 701 S.E.2d 772 (Ct. App. 2010). Once you have the citation for that case, you can locate it by the designated volume and page number of either the official South Carolina Reports (S.C.) or the South Eastern Reporter 2d Series (S.E.2d).

 

 

 

By Party Name
Print digests include Table of Cases volumes, which enable you to locate the full citation to a case in a particular jurisdiction when all you know is the case name. For example, you could find the citation for the Williams v. Smalls case by looking in the third Table of Cases volume (volume 33) of the South Carolina Digest 2d, which contains cases with names that begin with S-Z (designated S-End). The case should be listed by both parties' names, Williams and Smalls.

West publishes the South Carolina Digest 2d for South Carolina cases and the South Eastern Digest 2d for cases published in the South Eastern Reporter (SC, NC, GA, VA, WV). The law library maintains a copy of both.

You may also search online by citation (701 S.E. 2d 772) or by case name (Williams v. Smalls) using free websites or subscription databases like Westlaw, LexisAdvance, or Bloomberg Law. 

By Subject: West Topics & Key Numbers

Court opinions are published in reporters in chronological order, without regard to the legal issues they address. West organizes these opinions by subject by assigning a topic and key number to every legal issue (topic) and sub-issue (key number) addressed in each case. These issue summaries, with their assigned topics and key numbers, appear in the form of headnotes added to the official text of the opinion. See Animals (topic) and 97 (key number) in headnote number 2 in the Williams v. Smalls opinion below:


Digests
West organizes these headnotes with citations to cases under the appropriate topics and key numbers in sets of books called digests. The same summary (or headnote) and citation for the Williams v. Smalls case is listed in the South Carolina Digest 2d and the South Eastern Digest 2d under the topic Animals, key number 97 (Liabilities for trespasses in general).


                                            


Descriptive Word Indexes
All digests include Descriptive Word Indexes to help you find the headnotes and citations for cases like Williams v. Smalls that address the issue of liability for trespassing animals. For example, if you look in the Descriptive Word Index to the South Carolina Digest 2d or the South Eastern Digest 2d under the topic TRESPASS, you find ANIMALS, which directs you to Anim (for the topic ANIMALS), key numbers 89-102.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once you've identified the relevant topic (ANIMALS) and key number(s) (89-102) using the Descriptive Word Index, you can go directly to the digest volume that contains that topic and key number(s)and read summaries of opinions that address liabilities for trespassing animals (ANIMALS K97) (See Digests above).


Topic Outline
You can also turn to the outline at the beginning of that topic in the digest volume to look for surrounding key numbers that could be relevant to your case. For instance, you may be interested in cases listed under Animals K93 that deal with what constitutes a trespass.

You may also access West topic and key numbers online from the home page of Westlaw and instead of choosing a digest, you choose one or more jurisdictions (SC, NC, All States, etc.). Lexis Advance has developed a system of headnote topics that you can browse from its home page as well. 

By Subject: One Good Case

You may already have a cite to "one good case" from reading a secondary source or reading another case, or from the annotations to a statute. If you have a relevant case such as Williams v. Smalls below, you can use the topic(s) and key number(s) from its headnote(s) to find more cases on a particular topic. 

 

For example, you may go directly to the volume that contains the topic (Animals)key number (97) in any digest and read summaries of additional opinions that address liabilities for trespassing stock (see headnote number 2 above).  

If you're looking for South Carolina cases only, simply turn to Animals K97 in the South Carolina Digest 2d. If you need to expand your research, you can consult a regional digest, such as the South Eastern Digest 2d to find cases listed under that same topic and key number for Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, as well as South Carolina. (See Digests above).

 

 

Or, you can use the headnote from that case to find more cases online using a subscription database. In Westlaw, you can access the West topic and key number system by simply clicking on a relevant topic and key number from the headnote in a case and choosing one or more jurisdictions to search. Lexis Advance uses a similar system of assigning topics to its headnotes

By Words or Phrases


Words and Phrases
Another way to find cases in print is by using the Words and Phrases volume(s) of the appropriate digest. Sometimes you will be searching for court opinions interpreting the meaning of a particular word or phrase. For example, if you consult the L-End Words and Phrases volume of the South Carolina Digest 2d, you will find several South Carolina cases that address the meaning of the word "trespass."

Each entry includes a summary of that court's interpretation of the meaning of "trespass," along with the information you will need for a Bluebook citation to the case, and the topic(s) and key number(s) assigned to the trespass issue(s) specific to the case.

 

Of course, you can always conduct a keyword search that includes certain words or phrases using free websites and subscription databases. Typically, a keyword or full-text search will locate where a specific term or phrase is used anywhere in an opinion, not restricting the search to where the court defines or interprets its meaning. You can narrow your search when searching full-text in an online database by using its advanced search feature. 

By Subject: Keyword or Full-Text Search

Conducting a keyword or full-text search for case law is often not the best option, unless you limit your search by using advance searching fields in the narrowest database possible, e.g., South Carolina cases instead of all state cases. As described above, one of the best ways to find cases on a specific topic is using the headnotes and topics from a relevant case. Often you will find that one good case in the annotations to a statute, cited in a secondary source, or cited in another case.