« Ind. Courts - Chief Justice Dickson's note to fellow judges | Main | Ind. Courts - "Indiana's chief justice stepping down" [Updated] »

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Ind. Decisions - Lawyers Relying on Headnotes and Key Numbers For Legal Research Are Missing Some Important Cases

Commentary by Joel Schumm, professor at Indiana University's Robert H. McKinney School of Law

In reviewing some of last year’s Indiana Supreme Court sentencing cases, I was surprised that some had no headnotes and associated key numbers.

Although every lawyer likely learned about headnotes and key numbers in law school, the ubiquitousness of online research over the past two decades has certainly diminished their importance and rendered them obsolete among many lawyers. Nonetheless, a Westlaw webpage for law students touts their importance:

The logical organization of legal materials is essential to the maintenance of a legal system based on precedent. For more than 100 years, the bench and bar have relied on the Key Number System's organization of caselaw to locate that precedent.
The publisher reportedly employs a meticulous process to produce headnotes:
A court issues an opinion in a case. A copy of the case is obtained by West, where highly trained Attorney Editors read the cases and pick out the points of law addressed in the case. Written as a short, concise paragraph, these are called headnotes.

So, one point of law = one headnote. Then what?

Those headnotes are then passed along to attorney editors who are experts in figuring out where points of law belong in the huge Key Number System "outline." These "Classifiers" find the correct location on the outline, and assign a Key Number to the headnote. Here is the great part: all headnotes dealing with a particular point of law will have the same Key Number! Talk about a great research tool!!

The Indiana Supreme Court is, of course, the highest court in the state. When it speaks, lawyers should listen. So, too, should these “highly trained editors.” Or maybe they just think the cases are not important. I disagree based on the following examples:

Posted by Marcia Oddi on June 11, 2014 01:40 PM
Posted to Schumm - Commentary