This guide defines the types of Washington cases typically used in legal research and discusses how to find relevant cases using common paper resources, databases provided by the Public Law Library and free case databases on the Internet. Visit either of the following web sites for definitions of the terms used here:
What is Washington Case Law?
In this guide, the phrase “Washington case law” refers to the reported decisions of our State’s Courts of Appeal and Supreme Court. Other Washington courts--Superior, District, and Municipal—issue opinions and orders but these materials are not consistently available in paper or online and are not discussed here. It is also important to remember that although you may find unreported and reported decisions from these courts in the resources discussed here, only reported decisions may be cited or used as authority (for more information, see GR 14.1)
Identifying Your Issue
Before you can find case law, you must determine the keywords and phrases that describe your issue. What words might a court use to describe what has happened? How might you describe the people involved and their relationships? What are the results you are seeking? Checking legal textbooks and encyclopedias can help you find the correct legal terms and may themselves give you citations to useful cases.
The Washington Digest 2d (shelved at KFW 57 .W47) is an index of Washington cases arranged by subject . To use the Digest:
- Go to the Descriptive Word Index volumes.
- Look up the keywords and phrases describing your issue. If they appear in the index, you will see a list of Digest subjects discussing them. If any of these are relevant, note the subject and key number printed in bold. (Subject titles are often abbreviated so refer to the abbreviation table at the beginning of each volume.)
- Go to the main volumes of the set and find your subject(s) alphabetically. Under each subject, you will find the particular key number(s) noted in the index. Under each key number you will find a list of cases. Each entry will contain a brief description of the important issues in the case, ending with the case name and citation. Use this citation to find the case itself for further study. Be sure to check the pocket part at the end of the volume for the most recent updates.
Using Annotated Statutes
If you know a particular State law is related to your issue, you can find cases in this manner. To find cases that discuss a particular part of our State code, use the Revised Code of Washington Annotated (RCWA)(shelved at KFW 30). These books are organized by code title. Each entry includes the text of the statute and additional references to help you research the statute. If there have been cases discussing the statute, references to those will appear in a section called Notes of Decisions. Each entry will contain a brief description of the important issues of the case, ending with the case name and citation. You can use this citation to find the case itself for further study. Be sure to check the pocket part at the end of the volume for the most recent updates.
Finding Cases by Citation
Washington cases are found in two paper resources: Washington Appellate Reports (“Wash.App”) and Washington Reports (abbreviated “Wn.” Or “Wash” for older cases and “Wn.2d” or “Wash.2d” for newer cases). Case citations follow a standard format. The first number indicates the volume, the abbreviation in the middle indicates the name of the book, and the final number indicates the page. The citation "85 Wn.2d 685" refers to volume 85 of the second series of Washington Reports, with the case opinion beginning on page 685.
Using Databases in the Public Law Library
The Public Law Library provides free access to two different online databases which contain Washington case law: Lexis and Westlaw. You can search either of these databases using a custom index built into the database or by entering keywords and phrases similar to a Google search. Search results can be narrowed by date and other parameters. You must visit one of our branches to use these databases; they are not available through our web site. If you need help using either of these, please ask at the reference desk.
Free Washington Case Law on the Internet
There are a few free web sites available where you may search for Washington case law. They are:
- Recent Opinions from the Washington State Supreme Court
- Complete Opinions from the Washington Courts of Appeal and Supreme Court
- Washington Cases on Google Scholar
Is Your Case Still "Good Law"?
Once you have found and reviewed the cases you believe are related to your issue, you need to check to make sure they are still "good law", that is have not been overturned or overruled by another decision. The most effecient way to do this is using either the Lexis or Westlaw databases in the Public Law Library. Both have a mechanism for determining this: on Lexis it is called Shepards and on Westlaw it is called KeyCite.