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 Law Library and free case databases on the Internet. Visit either of the following web sites for definitions of the terms used here:
- Law.com’s Legal Dictionary
- The Washington State Court’s Glossary of Terms
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 Law Library
The Law Library provides free access to Westlaw, a legal database which contains Washington case law. You can search the 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 the database. Library staff can help you if you need it.
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:
- Washington State Judicial Opinions
- Recent Opinions from the Washington State 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 efficient way to do this is using KeyCite in the Westlaw database.
News, Updates, & Other Resources & Forms:
Important Rule Change: Courts May Consider Unpublished Appellate Decisions
Beginning September 1 of 2016, Washington courts may choose to consider unpublished opinions of the Court of Appeals. While such opinions would still be nonbinding, amendments to GR 14.1 would allow them to be “accorded such persuasive value as the court deems appropriate” – provided the citing party identifies the decision as unpublished and appends a copy to the pleading.
Washington County Codes
Washington County Codes: This website, created by the Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC), provides links to the codes of many Washington States counties. The codes can be searched individually by county.
Washington Municipal Codes: MRSC has also compiled this list of links to city codes.
Washington State Digital Archives Has Select Superior Court Case Records
Included in the suite of online collections at the Washington State Digital Archives are select Superior Court case records from Chelan, Skagit and Snohomish counties. To search these case records, visit the current collections portion of the Washington State Digital Archives web site, select Search from the main menu and then select the Superior Court Records collection in the Record Series drop-down box. You can search all counties simultaneously or narrow your search to a specific Superior Court. Getting copies of the records you find is not free. You are allowed to view the top portion of the first page of any record for which there is an image but if you want to see the entire document you will need to pay the associated fee. Make sure you also check the scope or coverage note for the court you are searching so you understand what is and is not available in that county’s collection.
Court Rules, Court Forms, & Dockets
LLRX This site includes links to over 1,400 state and federal court rules, forms, and dockets.
Links Updated: October 2020