May 09

Federal Digests

Posted in Audio Posts Sara Gras      Tagged Comments Off on Federal Digests

This LibTour on Federal Digests, which you can download here, was written by Sara Gras. Sara is an intern at Brooklyn Law School Library.

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This LibTour Covers Federal Digests. As the body of American case law began growing in the 19th century, it became difficult for practitioners to locate cases on particular topics of law. John B. West, the founder of West publishing and Westlaw, developed a classification system to respond to this problem called the West American Digest system.

The American Digest System divides the law into major topic categories which are further divided into more specific subcategories – each subcategory is assigned a number.  The number assigned to the subcategory is called a KeyNumber – as in the KEY to your research.

When a case is published, an attorney editor identifies each point of law contained in the case. These headnotes are assigned a KeyNumber which corresponds to a legal issue discussed in the case.  All of the cases related to any KeyNumber are listed and briefly described in a research tool called a “digest.”  In other words, a digest serves as an index of published case law from individual state courts, specialty courts like the Bankruptcy Courts, and the Federal Courts.

You are currently looking at the West Federal Practice Digest. You’ll notice that the Digest is organized alphabetically. Let’s assume you would like to locate RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) cases in New York federal courts.

The first step would be to locate the volume of the digest that contains this issue. As it happens, there are three digest volumes devoted to this topic – 82, 82A, and 82B. If you open Volume 82 and find the beginning of the section on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, you will notice a general outline of the subtopics contained within the section, along with the applicable KeyNumbers.

Looking at this outline is your second step. It can be very helpful in narrowing down the focus of your research since it breaks each legal topic down granularly. For example, you may determine that you are specifically interested in those cases that involve conspiracy, which the outline indicates is KeyNumber 15.

The next step is to go to the section of the volume where 15 is located and find the cases in the courts you are interested in – you’ll note they are organized alphabetically by state. You will find there are a number of cases in the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York that contain this issue.

The final step is to always also check the pocket part in the back of the volume to see if any new opinions have been added since the publication of the bound volume.

It is possible to utilize the Federal Digests to locate cases online when using Westlaw either by searching for a particular KeyNumber in a database, clicking a KeyNumber when reading a case, or utilizing the KeyNumber tools located at the top of the Westlaw screen.