Mar 22

West’s Digests

Posted in Audio Nan Balliot Posts Rebecca Lucca      Tagged Comments Off on West’s Digests

This LibTour on West’s Digests, which you can download here, was written by Nan Balliot and Rebecca Lucca. Nan is the Readers Services Librarian and Rebecca is the Cataloging Asistant at Roger Williams University School of Law.

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West Thomson/Reuters publishes regional reporters for state cases and federal case reporters, as well as case reporters for California and New York.   State appellate court opinions are published in the regional case reporters.  One regional case reporter is the Pacific Reporter.   Cases from the federal district courts and the Circuit Courts of Appeals are published in federal case reporters.  Federal case reporters include the Federal Supplement and the Federal Reporter.  U.S. Supreme Court cases are published in the Supreme Court Reporter.

The digests are a useful way for you to find citations to state and federal court opinions that are published in case reporters.  There are digests for the federal case reporters, digests for four of the seven regional case reporters, and a digest for each state with the exception of Delaware, Nevada and Utah.  Using a digest is one of the best ways to find cases on an issue of law in your jurisdiction as it ensures a comprehensive  search.

To understand a digest, you first need to understand a headnote.  Editors at West read court opinions and write the headnotes for each opinion.  The text of a headnote is from the text of the Court’s opinion.  The headnotes to a case are then assigned broad topics and key numbers.  Each key number represents a particular aspect of the topic.  The headnotes precede the text of the Court’s opinion as published in the case reporter.  A digest is a multivolume set containing the headnotes published in a corresponding case reporter by topic.  There are 414 digest topics and numerous key numbers for each topic.  Each number represents a specialized subject within the topic.  The topics and the key numbers are the same for each published digest.  Periodically, a topic and its key numbers are changed.  The changes are published in the digest volume containing the topic in a Key Number translation table.

Let’s use a digest to find a case in the following scenario.  You are working as an Assistant District Attorney in Alaska.  Anchorage police have arrested John Doe while he was breaking into an unoccupied fishing vessel in the harbor.  You must determine whether an unoccupied fishing vessel is considered to be a “dwelling” according to the Alaska burglary statute.

Alaska appellate court cases are published in the West’s Pacific Reporter because there is no case reporter that publishes just Alaska case law.  The headnotes from the Alaska appellate court cases are published in the West’s Pacific Digest.  Go to the Pacific Digest on the shelves in your library.  You must use the descriptive word index to the Pacific Digest to find a relevant topic and key number.  Using Volume 55, Descriptive Word Index A to CI, find the subject heading Burglary.  Look for the subtopic Building; under Building, you will find Character of and Elements and requisites.   You will see the word Burg and the key symbol with the number 4 following it.  This is reference to a topic and key number!  Note: all topic abbreviations (e.g. burg) can be found within each volume of the Descriptive Word Index.  The topic is Burglary.  Look at the pocket part in the back of Volume 55 to make sure that the topic and key number have not changed.  Use the subject Burglary.

Next, go to Volume 6, Bail to Burglary.  Find the topic Burglary.  Before the headnotes, there is a listing of the key numbers and the corresponding aspects of the topic Burglary.  Find the page on which Key Number 4, Character of Building, is found.  The headnotes are arranged alphabetically by state.  Within each state, the high appellate court will be listed first, followed by the intermediate appellate court.  These will be found in reverse chronological order.  Find the case of Shoemaker versus State.  The case is published in volume 716 of the Pacific Reporter, second series, page 391.  Go to that volume and page of the Pacific Reporter and you will see the headnote that you found published in the Pacific Digest!  To locate more recent cases, check the pocket part to Volume 6 and any additional supplementation to the Pacific Digest.

Westlaw allows you to browse or search for a topic and a key number.  You can select a jurisdiction in which to find cases containing headnotes with your topic and key number.

For assistance with using a digest, ask a librarian!