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Georgetown Law Library

Digests, Headnotes, and Key Numbers Research Guide

This guide explains how to use West Digests, Headnotes, and Key Numbers to find case law.

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Step One: Finding a Key Number

Before you use a digest, it's best to already have one or more key numbers of interest. There are many ways to identify useful key numbers. If you already have a good case on your topic, simply find the case in a West reporter or on Westlaw and look at the headnotes to find the appropriate key number(s).

If you don't already have a good case, there are numerous methods of finding one. Secondary sources, annotated codes, keyword searches, professors, law librarians, and other experts can be helpful sources for finding a leading case on a topic. Once you have found a case, look at the case in a West reporter or on Westlaw to find the relevant key number(s). Now you're ready for step two.

Another method is to use the Descriptive-Word Index (usually the last few volumes of the digest set) to locate a key number. Many researchers find the digest's index difficult to use because the terms used in the index may not be the terms you would use to describe your issue. Most indices have cross-references to lead you to the right index terms for your topic. You might have to search synonyms to find the appropriate index term.

Step Two: Selecting the Appropriate Digest

The second step is usually straightforward: choose the best digest for your needs. The following lists major digests and the jurisdictions or reporters they cover. Digests are located near their reporter. 

Supreme Court Digest
United States Supreme Court Digest Supreme Court, 1754 - present  
Federal Courts Digests
Federal Digest (red) Federal (Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement), pre-1939  
Modern Federal Practice Digest (green) Federal (Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement), 1940 - 1960  
Federal Practice Digest 2d (blue) Federal (Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement), 1961 - 1975  
Federal Practice Digest 3d (red) Federal (Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement), 1975 - 1987   
Federal Practice Digest 4th (blue) Federal (Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement), 1983 - present   
Federal Practice Digest 5th (red) Federal (Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement), 2003 - present   
Regional Digests
The only regional digest the library maintains a print subscription to is the Atlantic Digest.
Atlantic Digest 1st and 2d series, see volumes for dates: CT, DC, DE, ME, MD, NH, NJ, PA, RI, VT  
North Eastern Digest No longer published, see volumes for dates: IL, IN, MA, NY, OH  
North Western Digest 1st and 2d series, see volumes for dates: IA, MI, MN, NE, MD, SD, WI Library no longer maintains a print subscription
Pacific Digest Four series, see volumes for dates: AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, KS, MT, NV, NM, OK, OR, UT, WA, WY Library no longer maintains a print subscription
South Eastern Digest 1st and 2d series, see volumes for dates: GA, NC, SC, VA, WV Library no longer maintains a print subscription
Southern Digest No longer published, see volumes for dates: AL, FL, LA, MS  
State Digests
State digests are available for each state except Delaware, Nevada, and Utah. 
West's District of Columbia Digest 1st and 2d series  
West's Maryland Digest 1st and 2d series  
Virginia and West Virginia Digest    
West's New York Digest 1st - 4th series  
West's California Digest 1st and 2d series  
All Jurisdictions
American Digest   1658-present (Century Edition, 1st Decennial - 11th Decennial) Also known as the Decennial Digest. Library no longer updates the Decennial Digest.

Step Three: Reading Headnotes and Cases

Step three is simply to 1) find your digest, select the volume containing your topic, find your key number, and read the headnotes listed to find useful cases or 2) retrieve headnotes with your key numbers on Westlaw. It is important never to cite a case directly from the digest because the headnote contains only limited information about the case. Instead, note the citations of interest. Then use the citations to find and read the opinions in full. Print digests are updated by pocket parts and paper supplements, so don't forget to check those for the newest cases.