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West's Federal Practice Digest

Step 1: Identify possible legal issues

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:

  • free speech, first amendment, censorship, constitutional law, civil rights
  • video games, games, arcades, entertainment, amusement centers
  • graphic violence, violence, rating codes
  • city, town, village, municipality, local government, municipal corporation
  • law, statute, regulation, ordinance, zoning
  • teenagers, youth, children, minors

Step 2: Search by keywords in the index

Descriptive Word Index -- "Generally, descriptive words will group themselves around the five elements common to every case:

  1. The Parties involved;
  2. The Places where the facts arose, and the Objects or Things involved;
  3. The Acts or Omissions which form the Basis of Action or Issue;
  4. The Defense to the action or issue; and
  5. The Relief sought.

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."

NOTE: The volumes for the various series of West's Federal Practice Digest are no longer available in the UCF Libraries.

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 was previously shelved on the 2nd floor of the John C. Hitt Library in the Reference Collection, call number KF 127.M64. The set had dark blue covers and filled 34 shelves. The seven Descriptive Word Index volumes were 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

  • The bound volume of the Descriptive Word Index, Si-Z, published in 2002, doesn't have any entries listed under "video games", but the update for each volume is provided in a pocket part or a supplemental pamphlet.
  • The supplemental pamphlet for this bound volume of the index lists VIDEO GAMES with subheadings for:
    • COPYRIGHT, Copyr 10.1
    • REGULATION and licensing. See heading PUBLIC AMUSEMENT AND ENTERTAINMENT, generally
    • SPEECH, freedom of. See heading SPEECH, FREEDOM OF, VIDEO games
  • In the same supplemental pamphlet, the entry for SPEECH, FREEDOM OF, VIDEO games has subheadings for:
    • Generally, Const Law 1899
    • Sexual expression, Const Law 2261
    • Violent games, Const Law 1900

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.

Step 3: Locate the relevant volumes

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.

Step 4: Scan the entries by key number

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:

      • 1898. Video and computer games.
      • 1899. -------- In general.
      • 1900. -------- Violent games.

Step 5: Check the pocket part

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.

Step 6: Check the related titles

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:

  • First use the 4th set index to identify topics and locate cases from 1989-2002 in the topical volumes of the 4th set
  • Then use the 5th set volumes to update the topics from the 4th set and locate cases from 2003+
  • The pocket parts for the index volumes in the 4th set will be updated to include material found in the 5th set

For topics without 5th set volumes published:

  • Use the 4th set volumes & pocket parts to locate cases from 1989+

Step 7: Locate the full text of the decision

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.