Same Sex Marriage Cases: Westlaw Key Number Classification

July 12, 2013

samesex marriageNOTE:  The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in the same-sex marriage cases involved classification to ten different topics within the Key Number System.  Seven classifiers were responsible for those ten topics.  Below is one classifier’s view on dealing with these historic cases.

I am one of the 28 attorney-editors on Judicial Editorial’s Key Number Classification Team.  On a typical day, the team adds about 2300 Key Numbers to the 250 cases that move through the department.  On June 27, 2013, however, the team was preoccupied with two cases:  the two marriage cases being handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

First, I should explain what is involved in Key Number classification. The Key Number System (KNS), which has been in existence for more than 100 years, is the premier classification scheme for caselaw.  The KNS takes the entire universe of caselaw and breaks it into 400 major topics, such as Contracts, Criminal Law, and Insurance.  Each classifier specializes in different topics in the KNS.  Each of those topics is further subdivided into discrete legal issues that we call Key Numbers.  There are more than 100,000 different Key Numbers that may be assigned to any particular headnote, which is a summary of one point of law discussed in a case.

As the classifier of the topic Constitutional Law, it was a near certainty that both marriage cases would come my way, given the constitutional challenges to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and to California’s Proposition 8, which eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.

Headnoting work had begun minutes after we received the opinions.  Early that afternoon, Robin Gernandt, manager of the classifiers, passed to us the initial drafts of what would be our editorial enhancements for the long-anticipated DOMA case.  The headnotes were very well drafted.

As is sometimes the case with classification, the question with several headnotes was not where in Constitutional Law I should classify them, but whether they should classify to that topic at all.  Fortunately, I have two colleagues – Barbara Bozonie and Tom Curry – who have great expertise in the topic Federal Courts.  We consulted and researched, and consulted again, and…there it was.  The correct topic, the correct Key Number, the correct result.  Good stuff.

I then went to Bob Dodd, who somehow seemingly knows pretty much everything there is to know about each of the 100,000-plus Key Numbers.  After looking over my selections, he concurred, which was very reassuring confirmation.

Robin trained me in on Constitutional Law, so I asked him to take a final look.  He suggested a change, to which I agreed.  With the classifications having been examined by several sets of eyes, we were confident in our choices.

When the DOMA opinion and the final version of the editorial enhancements crossed  our desks, they were quickly dispatched, thanks to the work we did in anticipation.  The second opinion relating to California’s Proposition 8 didn’t take long at all.  By 5:30 or so we were headed home.

Big day for the Supreme Court, and for our entire nation.  Big day for our department, too, and it really couldn’t have gone much better.