Cases are decided by courts and are reported chronologically in sets of books we call Reporters. Reporter sets are numbered by volume and series. When a Reporter series reaches a high enough number of volumes a new series starts over at volume one.
You are standing near the South Eastern Reporter. It is a regional reporter in its second (S.E.2d) series, covering the states of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. The South Eastern Reporter, like all regional reporters, only includes state cases.
When you're researching an issue the controlling law in your jurisdiction might have been decided in a case eighty years ago. How do you find out about an eighty year old case buried deep in the Reporters? Digests.
Digests are a type of finding tool which allows you to quickly discover relevant cases, no matter when the case was decided. Near the South Eastern Reporter you will find a set of books called the South Eastern Digest.
At the beginning of most cases, before the opinion of the case itself are "headnotes." These are paragraphs copied and pasted from the opinion. These single paragraphs represent salient points from the case. Some cases have only one headnote, while some very complicated cases can have more than twenty. An important point to remember: Headnotes are not the law itself, and are not a substitute for actually reading the case itself!
West has created a giant outline of all case law in the United States. This outline is divided into 450ish major topics. Each topic has its own outline, and each part of the outline is given a number, which is called a Keynumber. Headnotes from cases are assigned Topics and Keynumbers by editors at West. Topics and Keynumbers are a universal system.
If you were to grab a pair of scissors and go through a Reporter and cut out only the headnotes, and arrange them into alphabetical order (Contracts 116 comes before Penalties 15, etc.) you'd be making a Digest. A Digest is nothing more than a set of books which contains all the headnotes from the Reporter it covers, arranged into order by Topic.
So, a West editor reads a case and pulls out one paragraph or sentence from the case and decides, "This is the heart of what was decided," and then after careful consideration the editor decides to assign "Contracts, keynumber 116" to this particular headnote.
This headnote, labeled Contracts k116 will appear at the beginning of the case before the opinion- and this headnote will also appear in the proper state digest and regional digest under Contracts, keynumber 116.
In the Digest, after the Topic Outline and before the Keynumbers themselves, you will see a Translation Table (if your topic needs one). This table converts old keynumbers into new keynumbers. So, your old case in the Reporter uses Telecommunications keynumber 5 - you take that keynumber to the translation table and discover it is now 1005.5, and then go to 1005.5 to see more cases on that issue.
Digests are a finding tool to get you to relevant cases. Use one of these 5 approaches:
1. Known Case Approach - This is the no-brainer. Somehow you've found a case and are reading it. You see that "Criminal Law k45.30" has been assigned to a headnote in this case. You go to the Digests and pull out the volume which contains Criminal Law and flip pages till you find 45.30, then look for other similar cases.
2. Descriptive Word Index - A the end of every Digest set are a few volumes called the Descriptive Word Index (often abbreviated DWI). These are just a mini-set of books which translate the search terms you bring to the book into Topics and Keynumbers. For example, you look for "Jaywalking" in the Descriptive Word Index and it tells you to see "Municipal Corporations keynumber 707."
3. Topic Analysis - At the beginning of every Topic entry in the Digest is a sort of table of contents for that Topic called the Topic Analysis. Once you are satisfied that you're probably in the right Topic, you read through the outline looking for a keynumber you think will help you.
4. Words and Phrases - The Words and Phrases volumes at the end of a Digest set collects headnotes from those cases where a judge has judicially construed a word or phrase.
5. Table of Cases - Again at the end of the Digests, there are usually two or so volumes called the Table of Cases. This is simply an alphabetical listing of every case in the Digest, arranged by both Plaintiff and Defendant, and includes the citation to the case and the Topics and Keynumbers of the Headnotes in that case.
To begin the updating process, check the pocket part in the back of the bound volume for your Topic and Keynumber.
At the end of a Digest set you'll usually find a paperback supplement. This supplement updates the pocket parts.
If you look in the front of any Digest volume you'll see something called a Closing Table, which tells you how current the Digest you're holding is.
Every Reporter volume contains a 'mini-digest' in the back of the book which covers only that volume. So, after you find which Reporter the Digest closes with, go to the next volume of the Reporter and check the mini-digest.
After you check the rest of the bound Reporter volumes' mini-digests, you will get into paperback "advance sheets." These are slim reporters which only contain a few cases and are sent out as fast as possible, and will eventually be collected into hardback volumes. You still have mini-digests in these volumes, but they appear in the front instead of the back.
To update a Digest:
You will need to check each case to ensure it is still "good law" and hasn't been overruled. This step in the research process is known as validating, or "Shepardizing." If you have a subscription to Lexis or Westlaw you can validate your cases using Shepards or KeyCite, respectively.
If you don't have a subscription, ask one of our librarians to log you into the public access Westlaw terminal on the second floor. KeyCite is available on it.