Friday, September 22, 2006

Case Law - An Equally Important 3rd Leg

This article focuses primarily on SC case law and the resources at the Main Library on how to find specific cases on a given topic. Case law is generated from the court systems of federal, state and local level. Case law can be equally as important as Code or Regulations. It may address certain topics not found elsewhere in other forms of law. Keep in mind that this is not legal advice of any kind. Please contact and work with a competent attorney for any legal matter.

As an overview laws are generally generated from the three branches of government and the executive branch generates primarily regulations.

1) Legislative - developed by local, state, and federal governments (sources such as code, public law or statutes). This is the main focus of this blog post.
2) Judicial - developed by actual court cases from municipal, state, and federal courts (sources such as Case Law, US Supreme Court Reporter, South Eastern 2nd case reports, SC Supreme Court Decisions, Appellate Court Rulings, common law system rulings, etc).
3) Executive - sources such as the US Federal Register or the SC Regulations.

The Judicial branch in general generates case law. Case law is generated from actual cases with plaintiffs and defendants in which the matter is aired in court and a judgment rendered. Over time, these cases generally set precedents or case law and can become equally important as the actual law generated by the state house or the governor in the form of regulations.

Researching this area or kind of law, being case law, can get complicated rather fast. One way of researching Case Law on a specific topic is using WestLaws Key Number System found in a few different source we have here at the Main Library being:
South Carolina Digest, South Eastern 2nd Series Reporter.

A person can also research legal topics based on keyword searching within such resources as LOIS LAW database in which text words are used primarily to find legal topics of interest.

SC DIGEST & Descriptive Word Index

The easiest way I can think of explaining this is to think about how Encyclopaedia Britannica Macropedia Works. It is an index to various topics and related topics
that will refer you to possibly 1 to say 10 different articles on a specific or very broad topic in one or more volumes within the encyclopedia set.

WestLaw has a publishing system that takes the majority of all subjects into an index and then is coded with key numbers. The South Carolina Digest is similar to the Encyclopedia Britannica Macropeadia indexing various Britannica volumes.
However, the Digest is the key to cases and without using the digest, the keyword index, or having a specific citation finding relevant case law among the hundreds of volumes of a Reporter of cases is extremely difficult!


The South Carolina Digest: Descriptive Word Index (Ready Ref 3418.026) -
is usually a good way to start to look for cases based on keywords of interest on a legal matter. Look to the end volume numbers of the set to find the Descriptive Word Index titles. The SC Digest Descriptive Word Index is organized in alphabetical order. It provides numerous see also like references as to how a topic may be grouped or divided within the SC Digest.


a) WestLaw Print Sources -
The South Carolina Digest (Ready Ref 3418.026) - The digest is also in alphabetical order based on major topics. These topics are then grouped into sub topics or areas of the law.

For example, a digest may provide several cases dealing with Liens and numerous lien related topics dealing specifically with Homesteads all grouped together. The notes provided are generally described as headnotes. These headnotes may provide major or specific points dealing with a case that set case law precedents or was important
for one reason or another. Most of the time, these headnotes will refer to a slip opinion which gives even greater detail about a case or a citation such as 134 S.E.2d 569 or 3 S.C. 412 as there are various kinds of citations for cases... More on this later in the next section. Some slip opinions can be found when available in the following sources.

Note: Some folks may go directly to a the Digest and bypass the Descriptive
Word Index. The caution is that the Descriptive Word Index may provide valuable see also like references that might be missed using different terminology and could be crucial to the topic being research.

a) LOIS Law Database Source -
This database primarily uses keywords to retrieve results. It does not use the West Law Key System. This database has select South Carolina Supreme Court and Applette Court Cases in slip opinion form. If you know of the specific citation for the SC Supreme Court or Appelete Court you can search for the slip opinion with that citation as well and the ruling will come up when available in the database.

b) West Law Print Sources -
South Eastern Reporter (Ref 345.415 Southea) - This set contains hundreds of volumes of cases within the Southeast covering SC, GA, NC, VA, and WV. The cases in these volumes have been deemed important. The key is to take the citation such as: 134 S.E.2nd 569 and break it down. A Majority of case law citations will use this form.

134 - Volume Number on Spine
S.E.2nd - Source is the South Eastern Reporter: Second Series
569 - Page Number

In a nutshell sheparding of case law is done to determine if the case law or precedent is still valid. Case law can change over time for a variety of reasons. The sheparding of case law is beyond the scope of this article. Here are two of many sources used for Sheperding case law.

Shepards South Carolina citations : cases a compilation of citations...
Call Number: Ready Ref 340 Sou

Shepard’s acts and cases by popular names: federal and state
Call Number: Ref 348.7348 Shepards