Headnotes are brief summaries of the points of law that apply to a case. Each headnote corresponds to a specific point of law as applied to the relevant facts of the case, so there will be as many headnotes as there are points of law discussed in the decision.
Headnotes that accompany court opinions are prepared either by the court reporter or the judge who wrote the opinion. In the case of unofficial reports, the headnotes are prepared by the publisher’s legal editor. Case headnotes in official and unofficial reports are not the same. There can be differences in the number of headnotes and the names of the headnotes.
Case headnotes preceding the opinion in a court report are not authoritative statements of the law set forth in the case. The court’s opinion must always be read to determine what the court actually wrote.
A headnote is frequently also called a syllabus. In the United States Supreme Court, the syllabus is prepared by the court’s reporter. Current practice is for each syllabus to be preceded by the following: “NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.”
In some jurisdictions, the authoritative weight to be given to a syllabus depends on its designation. For example, in Oklahoma, the syllabus is given no authority, unless the syllabus is designated by the court as being “Syllabus by the Court,” in which case the syllabus is given the same authority as if the syllabus was set forth by the court in the opinion proper. Jurisdictions vary. It is incumbent upon the legal researcher to know the rules of the jurisdiction being researched.