This article is from the Legal Research FAQ, by Mark Eckenwiler with numerous contributions by others.
In section 2.2.1 above, you learned about the West
Publishing headnotes that precede nearly all reported cases. In
case you were wondering how to make use of those headnotes, the
answer is "use the Federal Practice Digest".
West has created a vast taxonomy of legal issues, referred
to as the "West key number system". A West reference has the
[subject] [key number]
where [subject] is a gross division like "Jurisdiction," "Venue,"
"Constitutional Law," or "Contracts." The key number, usually
of the form xx, xx.yy, or sometimes xx.yy(nn), corresponds to a
subdivision of the larger topic, such as "Freedom of speech:
prior restraint" or "Anticipatory repudiation of contract." The
volumes of FPD are organized alphabetically by subject; a list of
numbered subdivisions (with helpful short descriptions) appears
at the start of each major subject entry.
Whenever a case is published in a West reporter, West's
legal writers analyze the court's opinion and break it down into
main points. Each legal point -- e.g., "claims litigated once
may not be litigated again" -- is put into one of the pigeonholes
in West's overarching key-number system. These key numbers,
along with a summary of the case's conclusion or reasoning on
that sub-issue, are printed at the start of each case, numbered
sequentially from 1 to N. Within the case itself, bracketed
numbers (e.g., "") are inserted into the opinion to indicate
which passages are summarized by which headnotes. Sometimes a
single passage will merit several headnotes, and will be preceded
by a bracketed range ("[5-7]").
So what's the point, you say? The point is that in the volumes
of FPD itself, West organizes *ALL* of the headnotes from every
reported decision according to these systematic groupings. Thus, if
your case has a headnote labeled "Perjury 36", you can open the FPD
"Perjury" volume to section 36 and read a summary of similar
decisions rendered in other courts. You can then locate the actual
opinions that seem useful, read them, and make a note of any *other*
key numbers in those cases that may be relevant. Repeat as
This system is wonderful in principle. In practice, it depends
on the ability of West's employees to summarize cases correctly and
to do so using consistent key numbers -- an ability which is
obviously variable. A given proposition of law may be treated under
several nonconsecutive key numbers; indeed, it may be treated under
entirely different major subject headings. A good rule of thumb in
using FPD is that if you can't find what you need, try looking in a
different place. (This is also good advice even when you *do* find
what appears to be the answer.)
If you don't have a case to start from, you can use the FPD
subject index volumes (near the end of the set) to locate
potentially useful key numbers.
An extremely valuable feature of FPD is the Table of Cases
volumes (at the end), which list every reported federal decision.
If you have the name of a case -- say, _Hamaya v. McElroy_ -- you
can look it up in these volumes and find the citation. If you
only know the defendant's name, use the Defendant-Plaintiff
volumes (also at the end), which provide the same information
alphabetized by the name of the defendant.
A final word about the FPD series: There is more than one.
Because courts are constantly churning out opinions, West creates a
new set of FPD every 10-20 years. The current series, FPD 4th, covers
cases starting around 1987; its predecessor, FPD 3d, covers the period
from 1975 to roughly 1987. (Nobody ever uses the older sets, FPD 2d
and FPD, since the case law they summarize is ferociously out of
Note that West publishes the equivalent of FPD for state court
decisions as well. For each of the West regional reporters described
above, there is a corresponding Digest (e.g., Pacific Digest)
containing summaries of decisions rendered in that region. (Indeed,
the case law of a few large states such as New York and California is
summarized in special state digests, e.g., the current New York
Practice Digest 4th.) Note especially that West's key numbering
system is consistent, so a single topic/number combination
corresponds to the same legal issue in FPD and all the regional (and