INTRODUCTION TO LEGAL RESEARCH
Federal Practice Digest. Your prison library should also have a state digest, which will help you find relevant cases from your state. In New York, that digest will be the New York Digest.
Digests summarize case law using the West headnotes discussed above. Whereas cases have individual headnotes for each issue discussed in the case, the digests take headnotes from all the reported cases, and group them together by subject matter. These subject areas, known as the “Digest Topics,” are arranged alphabetically. You can use digests by finding the broad subject area relating to your issue. Examples of Digest Topics include arrest, bail, convicts, and criminal law. Within each Digest Topic, there will likely be many subtopics, each of which is assigned a “key number.” You will know you are looking at the key number because it will have a little picture of a key in front of it. Once you find the Digest Topic and key number of a particular legal point, you can use that number to find cases on that legal point in any jurisdiction. The key numbers are the same for all digests. For example, Criminal Law (110) key number 37(1)29 can be used to find cases on the subject of entrapment in New York state courts (by looking in the New York Digest), in federal courts (by looking in the Federal Practice Digest), and the U.S. Supreme Court (by looking in the U.S. Supreme Court Digest), or cases from any state court (by looking in the digest of that state). For this reason, finding a key number for a particular issue in your case can greatly advance your research.
Under each key number, a digest will list “headnotes,” i.e., cases and their citations that address the topic of the key number. Depending on how often a particular issue is litigated, there may be no headnotes, or there may be hundreds of headnotes under each key number. Headnotes are listed first by the level of the court that decided the case, next in alphabetical order by jurisdiction, and finally in reverse chronological order (by date, beginning with the most recent) within each jurisdiction. Each headnote also provides a citation to the relevant case.
Digests do not provide comments on cases; they simply contain organized lists of headnotes (cases by topic). It is up to you to decide whether a particular case might be applicable to your legal problems. Once you decide that a headnote discusses an issue that might be helpful, you should write down the citation given in the headnote and use that citation to find the text of the case in a reporter. You can decide whether the headnote has pointed you to a useful case only after you have actually read that case. Digests are only research guides; you may find that a headnote points you to a helpful case, but you also may find that a promising headnote leads you to an unhelpful case.
Note that digests are usually published in several series, with each series limited to a certain time period. For example, the fourth series of the New York Digest only contains headnotes for cases decided from 1978 to the present; for earlier cases, you would need to consult an earlier series of this digest. You must be aware of the period covered by the digest to maximize your research effort. Each digest will explain its coverage in its preface, found at the beginning of each volume. As with all other sources, do not forget to update by referring to the pocket part30 of each hardcover volume you consult.
Finding Key Numbers
There are three basic ways to find relevant key numbers. The first and easiest way is if you have already found a useful case. Obtain the case from a reporter published by West. Next, review the headnotes found at the beginning of the case. One or more of the headnotes will concern the issue(s) with which you are interested. At the beginning of the headnotes there will be a number preceded by the picture of a key. This is the “key number.” As described earlier, this key number can be used to find other cases that address the same issue by looking in the digests under that key number.
The two other ways of obtaining key numbers are similar to the way you would find relevant legislation. As described earlier, one of these ways is the “book index” method. This method requires looking in a digest’s book index (located at the front of the volume), and scanning the alphabetical list of subject areas (digest topics) and the breakdown of each subject area into smaller topics and even smaller subtopics. For example, suppose that you were looking for federal cases on whether a search pursuant to a search warrant could be executed at night. You would start by pulling out the volume that has “Search and Seizure” on the spine of the book (volumes 84 and 85 in the Federal Practice Digest (Fourth Series)). At the beginning of the section on Searches and Seizures is an index that breaks down the large topic of Searches and Seizures into smaller
“110” refers to the section containing Criminal Law, “37” refers to the
refers to the subsection of “entrapment” the concept of entrapment.
for entrapment, and “(1)” cases most often cited for
For a discussion on pocket parts see Part C(2)(c)(iii) of this Chapter.