Guide to Kentucky Case Law

Kentucky is a common law jurisdiction. Under the common law system, past cases are used as precedent by judges in deciding current disputes. Thus it is important to know how courts in the past have interpreted various legal situations.

Kentucky has a three tiered court system.

Kentucky's three-tier court system

* Prior to 1976 the Court of Appeals was the highest court in Kentucky.

There is a common misconception that all court decisions are published. District and Circuit Court decisions are not published. Some, but not all of the Court of Appeals' and Supreme Court's decisions are published.

Published decisions of the Kentucky courts can be found in the following reporters:

  • 1795-1951: Kentucky Reports (Ky.) [Located on the first floor, ranges F-132-133]
  • 1886-1928: South Western Reporter (S.W.);
  • 1928-1999: South Western Reporter 2nd Series (S.W.2d);
  • 1999-date: South Western Reporter 3rd Series (S.W.3d)
  • [Located on the first floor, ranges F-151,152 and in the basement, ranges B-3,4]

A citation to the South Western Reporter looks like this:

South Western Reporter citation


Cases are published chronologically, as they are released. Often you will already have a case citation in hand, or will run across a citation to a case in a law review article or legal treatise. In these instances you can simply take your citation and go directly to the reporters. If you do not have a citation in hand, but wish to find cases that deal with a particular topic you will need to use a research tool known as a digest.

A digest divides the law into various topics. (The topics are arranged alphabetically like an encyclopedia.) Each topic is broken down into sub-topics (known as key numbers). Following each of these key numbers are short paragraphs describing the cases which fall under each key number's subject. Following this brief description will be the citation to the case. To see the full text of a particular case use the citation to find the case in the appropriate reporter.

  1. To find Kentucky cases (Federal and State) you should use the Kentucky Digest (1st and 2nd series) [Located on the first floor, range F-134.]
  2. Use the Descriptive Word Index (found towards the end of the set) to look up words or phrases which deal with your problem. Following each term will be a topic and key number, e.g. Criminal Law 121.
  3. With your topic and key number in hand, go to the volume that includes your topic (Criminal Law) and find the key number (121). The spine of each book indicates which topics are covered by a particular volume.
  4. Look through the short case descriptions following your key number. Mark down the citations to the cases you wish to investigate further, you will need the citations to look the cases up in the appropriate reporters.
  5. To update your research, turn to the back of the volume and check the same topic and key number (Criminal Law 121) in the pocket part (attached to the back cover) this will lead you to more current cases.




Limited access to Kentucky case law is now available over the Internet. It is also possible to find Federal cases that originated in Kentucky for free over the Internet.