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IntroductionWHAT IS A HEADNOTE?WHAT IS A KEY NUMBER?USING A DIGESTStep One: Finding a Key NumberStep Two: Selecting the Appropriate DigestStep Three: Reading Headnotes and CasesHELPFUL HINTS This guide explains how to use the West Digest System to find case law. Introduction
A digest's major function is to allow you to find cases on a specific legal issue or topic. West digests use headnotes and key numbers to organize and summarize all cases by subject. Digests are available in print in the library. In addition, Westlaw provides searching by topic and key number, thus allowing you to create your own "custom digest" online. WHAT IS A HEADNOTE?
Before a case is published in a reporter, an editor at West reads the case and selects the important issues of law. For each major issue, the editor then writes a short description called a headnote. These headnotes are typically found at the beginning of each opinion and help the reader to determine quickly the issue(s) discussed in the case. For example, here is the third headnote of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Gideon v.Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335: 3. Constitutional Law 268.2
Sixth Amendment to federal Constitution providing that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy right to assistance of counsel for his defense is made obligatory on the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, and indigent defendant in criminal prosecution in state court has right to have counsel appointed for him. Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455, 62 S.Ct 1252, overruled. U.S.C.A.Const. Amends, 6, 14. The headnote describes one major issue in the case: whether an indigent defendant in a criminal prosecution in state court has the right to have counsel appointed for him. The broad topic assigned is "Constitutional Law," the key number is 268.2. WHAT IS A KEY NUMBER?
When writing the headnotes, the West editor gives each one a "headline," actually a broad topic, selected from a list of about 400 possibilities, for instance, "Landlord and Tenant," "Intoxicating Liquors," or "Automobiles." Finally, the editor will assign the headnote a specific sub-topic, such as "Injury to tenant or occupant." In West digests, this sub-topic is represented by a number called a key number. In the example above, within the topic "Constitutional Law," the key number for "Disadvantaged Persons, Counsel and Trial" is 268.2. Each topic and key number combination represents a unique point of law. Key numbers are the same in all West digests for all jurisdictions. Therefore, to find Massachusetts cases on the same topic as the Supreme Court case above, you would use the same topic and key number, Constitutional Law 268.2. USING A DIGEST
Step One: Finding a Key Number
Before you use a digest, it's best to already have one or more key numbers of interest. There are many ways to identify useful key numbers. If you already have a good case on your topic, simply find the case in a West reporter or on Westlaw and look at the headnotes to find the appropriate key number(s). If you don't already have a good case, there are numerous methods of finding one. Encyclopedias, ALRs, law reviews, annotated codes, treatises, hornbooks, keyword searches, professors, and other experts can be helpful sources for finding a leading case on a topic. Once you have found a case, look at the case in a West reporter or on Westlaw to find the relevant key number(s) and you're ready for step two. Another method is to use the "Descriptive-Word" index (usually the last few volumes of the Digest set) to locate a key number. Many researchers find the digest's index difficult to use because the terms used in the index may not be the terms you would use to describe your issue. Most indexes have cross-references to lead you to the right index terms for your topic. You might have to search synonyms to find the appropriate index term. Step Two: Selecting the...