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Criminal Justice

Researching case law by topic

There are several sources for performing research to find case law by subject area.


The CJS is so large that the index is in multiple volumes. Do not be surprised if you are directed to a different heading when looking for your topic. For example, if you look in the As for the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, you will find:

Age Discrimination in Employment Act-

     See Employment Discrimination (in this index).

This is directing you to the index heading for Employment Discrimination, which has many sub-headings. Look down the pages of sub-headings until you find the topic you are looking for. Be aware that the sub-headings might be further broken down into sub-headings of their own.

Once you find the entry for the heading you are interested in, you will be directed to the relevant section of the encyclopedia. For example if you were looking for information about damages available under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, you would see under the subheading for the Act:

damages, CivilRghts § 701, 702

You would then look for the volume of the encyclopedia that contains sections 701 and 702 of the subject Civil Rights (Vol. 14A).

The entry will contain a brief explanation of a topic, accompanied by footnote cites to important case law and statutes. The citations will by no means be exhaustive, but will usually contain key decisions and statutes. Be sure to check the back of the volume for the softbound "pocket part" which contains recent updates, if any are available for your topic of interest.


Digests allow you to find cases on a specific topic or legal issue. Those digests published by West use headnotes and key numbers to organize and summarize all cases by subject. Headnotes are short summaries of the major issue or area of law covered in a judicial opinion. Headnotes are written by editors at West, but are not part of the official judicial opinion.

In addition to writing the headnotes, the West editor assigns each headnote a "headline," actually a broad topic, selected from a list of about 400 possibile topics, for example, "Landlord and Tenant" or "Constitutional Law." Then a specific sub-topic will be assigned which will be represented by a number called a key number. For example, in the broad topic "Constitutional Law," the key number for the narrower topic of "Disadvantaged Persons, Counsel and Trial" is 268.2. Key numbers are the same in all West digests for federal and state jurisdictions.

To use a digest to find cases, it is usually best to find the key number for the issue of law that you are researching. Each set of digests has a "Descriptive-Word" index at the end of the set which can be used to locate a key number. If you are not able to find an entry for the word that you think applies to your legal issue, try brainstorming other possible synonyms. Most indexes have cross-references to lead you to the right index terms for your topic. After you find the key number of the issue or issues you want to research, you will find citations and short descriptions of cases under the entry for that key number. Use those citations to find the full text of cases in a court reporter.

Roosevelt University Library has the following digests in its legal reference print collection:


Law Reviews and Journals:

Law reviews are scholarly journals which focus on current issues in the law, with individual journals often focusing on a specific area of the law, like international law or family law. Articles often analyze narrow topics the law or current issues. They are a good source for learning the current state of the law. Citations in the articles will provide you with further sources for your research, including other articles, treatises, and relevant cases.


Treatises are scholarly publications that provide in depth coverage of a broad area of law, such as criminal procedure or family law. The term is broadly applicable to books written for practicing attorneys, textbooks, or books written for nonlawyers. They usually provide citations to key cases and articles and can help you identify narrower topics within those broad areas of law.

A note about primary vs secondary sources in legal research

There are two general categories of sources for legal research: primary and secondary.

Primary Sources (also referred to as primary law or primary authority) are legal texts or documents (including judicial opinions, statutes, regulations, and treaties) issued by a government entity (such as a court, legislature, executive agency, etc) that taken together are considered "the law."

Secondary Sources are materials and texts (such as legal treastises, encyclopedias, articles, annotations) written by scholars that discuss, compile, or explain the law or help a researcher locate the law. This page will primarily focus on how to use print secondary sources that help a researcher locate primary sources.