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First Year Focus on Research: Primary - Cases

Information about resources available in the MLIC

The Five Methods

  1. Known Case
  2. Descriptive Word Index
  3. Topic Analysis
  4. Words and Phrases
  5. Table of Cases


Cases are decided by courts and are published 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.

For example, the Pacific Reporter contains volumes 1-300, then around the mid-1950's the Pacific Reporter 2nd started and ran to volume 999.  We're now (as of this writing) up to volume 256 of the Pacific 3rd series.

Note - Reporters do not have pocket parts. They are not updated. Think about it- once a case has been published, the parties to that case may or may not go on and appeal - but the opinion written by the judge in that case stands and isn't going to change.


There are many different Reporter sets. There are Reporters which only include cases from certain states, reporters which cover several states ("regions"), and there are reporters which are topically based ("The Bankruptcy Reporter").

Almost all states have their own reporter set which only includes cases from that jurisdiction, and also federal cases which arose in that jurisdiction.  Check Appendix 1 in your A.L.W.D. to find the name of the Reporter for any state in which you're interested.

One hundred or so years ago, the West publishing company divided the country up into several regions and began issuing Regional Reporters, each of which contains the cases from several states.  Unlike state reporters, there are no federal cases in Regional Reporters.  Here is a map of the regions:

Headnotes, Digests, Topics and Keynumbers

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.


At the beginning of most cases, before the opinion of the case itself are "headnotes".  These are paragraphs (or short summaries of paragraphs) copied and pasted from the opinion.  In the judgment of an editor at West (or in some cases the court itself) these single paragraphs represent salient points from the case- that is, the points of law that this case decided. Some cases have only one headnote, 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

Please never, ever, ever say, "keynote".

Headnotes from cases are assigned Topics and Keynumbers by editors at West.

Topics and Keynumbers are a universal system.  That is, if you find a headnote assigned "Criminal Law k45.30" in the Kansas Digest, you can look under Contracts k45.30 in the Florida Digest to find a case on the same issue.  Topics and Keynumbers are the same from Digest to Digest.


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.

There is usually, but not always, an associated Digest for every West Reporter.  Exceptions are:

  • States which don't have a Digest
    • Delaware
    • Nevada
    • Utah
  • Regions which don't have a Digest
    • North Eastern
    • South Western
    • Southern

If you live in Delaware, Nevada or Utah you have to use your Regional Digest.  If you live in the North Eastern, South Western or Southern regions, you have to use your state digest.  If you live anywhere else you can take your pick of either Regional or State.

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 (and using years of experience) 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.

Keynumbers Change

As if all this weren't complicated enough- Keynumbers can change on you.

Think about this situation:  In 1945 (or so, I'm just making this up for an example) a West editor decided it was time to create a new Topic called Telecommunications.  After thinking about it and researching the issue he designed an outline with 10 keynumbers.

Ten years later he needed more room so he redesigned it to have 100 keynumbers.

Sixty-six years later, and Telecommunications is a huge Topic and contains hundreds of Keynumbers.

The law is constantly changing, and so is West's Key Number system.  They try to plan ahead and make the Topic Outlines flexible to contain new cases, but often new issues arise which couldn't have been thought of- or old Keynumbers turn out to need subsections and sub-subsections. 

In print this presents a problem- Reporter volumes with "Telecommunications keynumber 5" stay on the shelves, unchanged from when they were first published in 1946.

Translation Tables

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.

(When the West editors redo topic outlines they don't re-use old Topic numbers, otherwise it would get really confusing)

Online, the conversion is a bit more seamless, and if you look for an old, out-of-date Keynumber you'll be re-routed to the new one; and old cases will say, "Telecommunications k1005.5 (formerly Telecommunications k5).

Types of Digests

States Reporters and Regional Reporters have their own Digests (with the exceptions noted above), but there are also several topical Digests.  Click the image below to see the full chart:

Finding cases in Digests - the Five Methods

Digests are a finding tool to get you to relevant cases.  There are generally five different ways of using a Digest to get information, and which one you use depends on what you already know. You generally don't have to use more than one:

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. 

Normally when you visit the Digests you're in search of a Topic and Keynumber to get you to cases- this method starts you with a Topic and Keynumber to get you to cases.

  • Used when you already know a good case.
  • Helpful if you've already found a great case on your issue, but it's not in your jurisdiction and you want to find cases in yours.

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".

  • Used when you only have a set of search terms to begin with.

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 (or Topic Outline).  The beginning of the Topic Outline has a short section titled "Subjects Included" and "Subjects Excluded".  For example, if you were looking up information on deer poaching and went to the Topic Animals, you'd immediately see in the "Subjects Excluded" that you should stop looking in Animals and go to the Topic "Game".  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.

  • Used when you can make an educated guess which Topic to consult.

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.  For example, at this point in your law school career you've probably encountered the term "Assault" in your Torts class, and are familiar with the tort's elements.  If you look in the Words and Phrases volume under Assault, you will probably find a citation to a particular case where a judge in your jurisdiction has defined the elements of Assault.

  • Used when you have a legal term or buzzword you suspect has been defined by a court.

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.

  • Used when someone says, "Find me that Smith v. Acme case," because it will give you the citation of where to find the case, as well as the headnotes.

Updating Digests

Remember that cases are not updated themselves - the words the judge wrote in a case's opinion stands and isn't going to be changed. 

But, Digests are collections of cases by topic.  When you talk about updating a Digest, what you mean is that you're trying to find if there are any newer cases in your jurisdiction which have discussed your issue, and there are always new cases being decided. 

If you consult a Digest volume which contains "Criminal Law k45.30" which is two years old, you're obviously not going to know about any newer cases on that particular issue.

Pocket Part

You know by now to always check the pocket part.  Only very new Digest volumes don't have a pocket part in the back.


At the end of a Digest set you'll usually find a paperback supplement.  This supplement updates the pocket parts in the individual volumes, and is good for the entire Digest.  That is, it starts with the "A" topics and ends with the "Z"'s.

Closing Table and Back to the Reporters

The Digests follow along behind the Reporters, always lagging a bit behind.  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.  For example, "This volume closes with cases reported in 45 P3rd 579".  This means that if there is a case on your issue which appears at 45 P3rd 580 you're not going to know about it from the Digest.

So, you have to go back to the Reporter itself, because the Digest has taken you as far as it can.  In this example, we know we're current through 45 P3rd 579.  From experience we know that "page 579" probably isn't the last page in volume 45 of the Pacific Reporter 3rd- the Reporter volumes can run up to a thousand pages sometimes.

So what do you do? Painstakingly read every case which appears after 45 P3rd 579?  Warning - we're up to volume 55 P3rd, so that's 10 volumes of cases you'd have to read through.

Luckily, every Reporter volume contains a 'mini-digest' in the back of the book which covers only that volume.  So you'd check the mini-digest in volume 45 to see if any cases on "Criminal Law 45.30" appear, then volume 46, 47. . .

Somewhere around volume 50 or so you'll discover that the hardback volumes stop and then you 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.

Updating the Digest - Putting it all together

To update a Digest:

  1. Consult the Digest volume itself.
  2. Check its pocket part for your topic and keynumber.
  3. Check at the end of the Digest set for a paperback supplement.
  4. Check the Closing Table at the beginning of either the pocket part or paperback supplement (whichever's newest) to see what volume of the Reporter to go to.
  5. Go to the Reporter and check the mini-digest in the back for your topic and keynumber.
    1. Go to the next volume and check for your topic and keynumber.
    2. Go to the next volume and check for your topic and keynumber.
    3. Eventually the hardcover volumes will stop and you'll be in the softcover advance sheets and check the mini-digest in the front.
  6. You're probably as current now as you can be, without just going online to Westlaw.


Cases get overruled. 

It might surprise you to know that "bad" cases aren't removed from the Reporter or the Digest.  They sit there, for all time, waiting to trip you up.

Finding out whether the case you're relying on is still "Good Law" is a separate step called Validation (or Shepardizing), and will be covered on its own page here and its own class later this semester.