CAUTION: The following quick analysis is presented for the sole purpose of demonstrating the mechanics of using the print publications in the West's Federal Practice Digest series. Readers should NOT assume that this analysis represents accurate or comprehensive legal analysis. It is recommended that an attorney be consulted when an interpretation of the law is needed.
A city has passed a law to protect teenagers from exposure to graphic violence in video games at arcades in the city. Does this infringe on free speech rights?
Make a list of relevant issues and terms with synonyms that describe the situation before you begin your search:
Descriptive Word Index -- "Generally, descriptive words will group themselves around the five elements common to every case:
A search, in the DESCRIPTIVE-WORD INDEX, of words descriptive of these elements will produce the decisions dealing with similar fact situations and legal principles."
There might be relevant state caselaw as well, but for the purposes of this example we'll limit our search to the federal cases. West's Federal Practice Digest 4th is shelved on the 2nd floor of the John C. Hitt Library in the Reference Collection, call number KF 127.M64. The set has dark blue covers and fills 34 shelves. The seven Descriptive Word Index volumes are on the third shelf from the end.
Try the most distinctly descriptive words first. If those words are included in the index you'll save yourself the necessity of browsing through the entries and subentries for less specific terms.
Let's try "video games" in the index
If that entry for "video games" hadn't shown up you might have needed to browse through headings for "Constitutional Law" or "First Amendment" or "Speech, Freedom of". But you got lucky this time.
An individual case might have several headnotes addressing different aspects of the case, and those headnotes might be classified in several different topic areas found in different volumes, so there might be multiple paths leading to the same case.
NOTE: Don't just write down the key number without including the topic or you'll be lost. You need to use the topic AND the key number. The key numbers are just a sequential numbering within a topic, so there will be many topics with a key number 1900. You're looking for the topic Constitutional Law and within that topic you're looking for key number 1900.
Locate the volume containing the entries for Constitutional Law, key number 1900. If you identified other topics and key numbers, locate those volumes as well.
Browse through the entries for Constitutional Law, key number 1900, looking for cases addressing issues similar to the situation described in our example in step 1.
The cases are arranged by level of court, starting with cases at the U.S. Supreme Court, then the appellate Circuit Courts, then the District Courts alphabetically by state.
One of the entries is for a 2000 case in the Southern District of Indiana, American Amusement Mach. Ass'n v. Kendrick, 115 F.Supp.2d 943. The headnote states: "Ginsberg established proper framework for deciding First Amendment challenge to ordinance restricting display and operation of coin-operated video games deemed "harmful to minors" due to graphic violence; to uphold ordinance city was not required to prove that video games with graphic violence in fact caused harm to minors, rather, city could rely on its compelling interest in the welfare of minors to legislate narrowly in a field where the available social science data reflected some arguable uncertainty as to the actual harm caused by video games." This description seems relevant to the example situation we're researching from step 1.
The headnote is written by a legal editor and is just a finding tool to locate a possibly relevant case. In step 7 you will need to look at the text of the full case to read the actual decision to determine whether the legal situations and outcomes are similar.
NOTE: This case was reversed and remanded by the appellate court, so much more research would be required regarding the issues, but you've made your way through the basic process of identifying descriptive words about a legal situation and using the index and key numbers to locate a possibly relevant case.
If key number 1900 didn't seem to include relevant cases, then you could take a look at the outline to see if nearby key numbers might work. There is a 100-page outline at the beginning of the entries for Constitutional Law listing all of the key numbers for this topic, including:
Remember to check the pocket part or supplemental pamphlet for more recent cases.
The pocket part is an insert found in the back of the volume. If it gets too thick for the volume it is published as a separate paperback supplemental pamphlet. Eventually the bound volume will be reprinted incorporating all of the supplemental material, but years can go by before that happens.
Each pocket part or supplemental pamphlet provides an annual update to a specific volume. Paperback volumes shelved at the very end of the set provide intermediate updates to the entire set a few times a year.
West's Federal Practice Digest 4th covers cases for a specific period of time (1989-2013+). There may be older or newer relevant cases covered in related titles. For cases between 1975 and 1988, use West's Federal Practice Digest 3d.
The pocket parts supplementing West's Federal Practice Digest 4th bring the coverage up to whatever date begins coverage by the equivalent volumes in the 5th set. It will take several years for the complete set of West's Federal Practice Digest 5th to be published. As of October 2016, about half of the volumes have been published for the 5th set, so you will still use the pocket parts in the 4th set to update many topics.
For topics with 5th set volumes published:
For topics without 5th set volumes published:
Remember, the headnote is written by a legal editor and is just a finding tool to locate a possibly relevant case. You will need to look at the text of the full case to read the actual decision. Federal Supplement 2d is shelved on the 3rd floor at KF .F42 2nd Series.
By reading the full text of the case in Federal Supplement 2d you may also discover other headnotes for the specific case leading you to other topics and key numbers to expand your research. You could also use the Table of Cases volumes of West's Federal Practice Digest 4th to identify the topics and key numbers used for a specific case.
NOTE: You can also view the full text of the case in LexisNexis Academic, BUT... LexisNexis Academic is not produced by West and the headnotes are written by different legal editors using a different descriptive system, so you won't be able to use the LexisNexis Academic headnotes to find related cases in the West publications.