Laws and Cases: How to Do Legal Research
Sometimes you need to look up a law to get an answer to your legal question. To find a law, statute, code section, or case, see below.
Definitions -- The Jargon Used in Legislation
As with every other area of life, legislation comes with some jargon that, once mastered, should come in handy when you're trying to understand the law. Here are some terms you may encounter when researching federal or state statutes:
Annotated Codes: Publications that combine state or federal statutes with summaries of cases that have interpreted the statutes. With a few rare exceptions, annotated codes are only available in a law library or on subscriber-based legal websites.
Bill: What a statute is called when it is introduced in Congress or a state legislature. When a bill is passed by both houses and the President or a state governor, it becomes a law and will usually be published according to its bill number in a publication called "Session Laws" or "Statutes at Large."
Bill Number: Bills are referred to by number. The number really has two parts: the abbreviation for the specific wing of the legislature in which the bill is introduced, as in HB (house bill) or SB (senate bill), and the number which identifies the particular bill, as in HB 1507.
Chapter: A term that identifies a group of related state or federal statutes that have been gathered together within a particular Title or Code.
Chaptered: A bill becomes chaptered if it is approved by the legislature and signed by the governor.
Citation: Formal references to statutes that describe where they are published. For instance, the citation 23 Vt. Stat. Ann. § 1185 tells us that this cited statute is Section 1185 of Title 23 of the Vermont Statutes Annotated. And the federal citation 42 U.S.C. § 1395 tells us that this cited federal statute can be found in Title 42, Section 1395 of the United States Code.
Code: In general, the term "code" refers to the main body of statutes of the jurisdiction (for example, the United States Code or the Arizona Revised Statutes). The statutes that are published in a state’s code are grouped by subject matter into Titles, as in Title 11 of the United States Code (bankruptcy laws). In some states, including California, Texas and New York, the term "code" may be used both to refer to the overall collection of statutes and the separate subject matter groupings of statutes, as in "Penal Code," "Family Code," or "Probate Code."
Engrossed: A bill is engrossed when a legislative body (such as the House) votes to approve it and sends it on to the other legislative body (such as the Senate).
Enrolled: A bill is enrolled when both houses of a legislative body have voted to approve it and it has been sent to the executive branch (the President or a state governor) for signing.
Legislative history: Assorted materials generated in the course of creating legislation, including committee reports, analysis by legislative counsel, floor debates, and a history of actions taken. Legislative history for recently enacted federal statutes can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.php. Legislative history for state statutes is sparse and not easily found on the Web.
Session Laws: When bills become law, they are published in a text according to the session of the legislature that enacted them into law. For instance, laws passed by the California legislature in 1999 were passed in the 1999-2000 session. The individual laws in the publication for a particular session (such as Session Laws 1999-2000) can be found according to their original bill number.
Statutes at Large: See Session Laws.
Statutory Schemes: Groups of statutes that relate to one particular subject. For instance, all of the federal statutes that make up Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (which forbids employment discrimination and sexual harassment) are known as a “statutory scheme” because they are all related to each other.
Title: In the federal system and in some states, "title" is used to denote a collection of state or federal statutes by subject matter, as in Title 11 of the U.S. Code for bankruptcy statutes or Title 42 of the U.S. Code for civil rights statutes. Title is also used to denote a group of statutes within a larger set of statutes, as in Title IX of the Civil Rights Act (which itself is located in Title 42 of the U.S. Code).
The Role of Statutes in our Legal System
When people talk about "what the law says" or "what the law is," they are generally referring to statutes (sometimes called codes). Statutes, which are created by the U.S. Congress and by our state legislators, attempt to lay out the ground rules of "the law." When disputes arise over the meaning of statutes, state and federal courts issue court opinions that interpret the statutes more clearly. This is referred to as "case law." In addition, numerous federal and state agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the IRS, and the various Secretary of State's offices, issue regulations that cover the legal areas that the agencies control (such as environmental law, federal taxes, and corporations law).
Should I Search Federal or State Laws?
Most legal research involves state statutes rather than federal statutes because states have the sole power to make the law in many areas, such as child custody, divorce, landlord-tenant, small business, personal injury, and wills and trusts. A growing number of legal areas are covered by both state and federal statutes, including consumer protection, employment, and food and drug regulation. (State laws give way to stricter federal laws that address the same issue.) Finally, the federal government alone creates the law for a few specific subject areas, such as copyrights, patents, bankruptcy, federal taxes, and Social Security.
How to Find a Law
There are two main ways to find a particular state or federal statute on a state's website -- by doing a search or by browsing the table of contents. Not all states allow you to do a search, but for those that do, simply enter a few terms that relate to the subject you're looking for. For instance, in you're looking for the minimum number of directors that your state requires a corporation to have, you might enter the terms "corporation" and "director."
How to Design a Good Search
To do a good search you need to anticipate the words used in the statutes you are searching. For instance, if you are looking for a statute regarding drunk driving in a car, you might choose to use the search terms "vehicle" and "under the influence." If that search pulled up hundreds of statutes, you probably want to narrow the search instead of reading each statute. You might add the words "alcohol" and "breath." On the other hand, if the search doesn’t pull up any statutes, you probably want to broaden the search by using fewer search terms.
However, this can often be difficult to do because you may not know the exact terms your state uses to address the issue you’re researching. Browsing the table of contents of statutes is often a better way to find laws on your subject because it lets you look first at the general subjects (titles, or sometimes divisions). From there you can move to particular topics (chapters, or sometimes articles), and then to the precise statutes you need (sections). By browsing, you also get a general idea of all the statutes there are on a specific subject.
Make Sure to Read Related Statutes
If you are interested in a particular area of the law (for example, small claims court procedures), you need to read all relevant statutes on that subject. If you don't, you may miss an important statute that contradicts the law you have found. For instance, one small claims statute may tell you that small claims court can be used for claims involving $5,000 or less while another statute that appears later in the chapter may set a lower dollar limit for cases involving evictions.
Fortunately, most statutes are organized in clumps called "statutory schemes," which are published together in one title, chapter, section, or act. So, once you find a statute on your subject, it’s simply a matter of finding out where the statutory scheme starts (usually by backing up to earlier statutes) and then reading all related statutes until you reach a new title, chapter, section or act. For example, if you do a search on small claims procedure and find a relevant statute, you would then need to browse forwards and backwards until you are convinced that you’ve found every statute that may bear on that issue.
Sometimes, statutes you read will refer to other statutes. You should take the time to read those statutes as well. Often, they will include exceptions, further explanations, or details that are important to your issue.
How to Read a Law
Some statutes are clearly written, meaning that you can easily understand exactly what the legislature intended and what "the law" is on a particular subject. Unfortunately, many statutes are very difficult to understand. Exceptions to the statute, "whereases," and cross-references to other statutes can make it very hard to understand what a statute means. Here are some rules to use when interpreting a statute:
Read the statute three times and then read it again.
Pay close attention to all the "ands" and "ors." The use of "and" to end a series means that all elements of the series are included, or necessary, but an "or" at the end of a series means that only one of the elements need be included.
Assume all words and punctuation in the statute have meaning. For example, if a statute says you “may” do something, that means you are allowed to do it. But if it says you “shall” do something, it means you are required to do it.
It’s tempting to skip words you don’t quite understand. Don’t do it. If you’re confused about what a word means and can’t understand from the context, look the word up.
If the statute is one of a number you are studying, interpret it to be consistent with the other statutes if at all possible.
Interpret a statute so that it makes sense rather than lead to some absurd or improbable result.
Track down all cross-references to other statutes and sections and read those statutes and sections.
How to Make Sure a Law Is Up to Date
Once a statute becomes law, it seldom remains unchanged for very long. A future legislature may change (amend) or revoke (repeal) a statute for any number of reasons. Unfortunately, many online collections of statutes are not kept up to date. For one, the online U.S. Code is often a year behind -- it takes a lot of time to work new federal legislation into the existing organizational framework. In this case, you can use Thomas, a Congressional website that provides both pending and recently enacted legislation, to find out if there have been any recent changes to the statute you're interested in.
In addition, many state collections of statutes are not up to date, but the state website will usually tell you the year that the collection was last updated. In that case, you will have to search all the bills that have passed since the last time the statutes were updated. The text of these bills is available on your state legislature's website, which is often linked from your state's statutes.
When Do I Need to Consult a Local Ordinance?
City and county laws, usually known as ordinances or codes, apply to many aspects of our daily lives. Local ordinances govern matters such as:
building and construction standards
noise and nuisance regulations
public health and safety
civil rights, and
If you are a city or county resident, a homeowner, a landlord, a tenant, or a small business owner, chances are there is a local law that affects you. When you are researching the laws that apply to your situation, check your local ordinances.
Local Ordinances vs. State and Federal Laws
Local laws can never be weaker than federal or state law, and they are frequently stricter. For instance, San Francisco Building Code earthquake safety standards are more stringent than those in the California Building Code.
Where Can I Find the Text of Local Ordinances?
Many cities and counties provide online access to local ordinances on their websites. Your best starting point might be an online search (using Google, Yahoo!, or some other search engine) with the name of your city or county and keywords like "code" or "laws" or "ordinance." For example: "ABC City Code" or "ABC County Ordinance."
Another online resource is MuniCode.com, which has collected a lot of city and county codes that can be browsed online. Just choose your state and look for your local area.
You can also find county and municipal codes at your county or city clerk's office, or at a county law library or large public library. Individual agencies like the county public health department or city building inspection department will usually provide copies of the rules they enforce. Phone numbers for these county and city agencies are listed in the government pages at the front of your telephone book.
The Role of Court Cases in Understanding Statutes
When most people talk about "the law," they tend to think only of statutes. But when disputes arise over the meaning of statutes, judges must interpret the statutes. Judges' interpretations of those statutes -- called "opinions," "decisions," or "cases" -- are as important to understanding what the law is as the words of the statutes itself. So once you find a statute that seems to address your situation, you might need to take the next step and see what the courts have had to say about it.
There are two types of courts, federal courts and state courts. Usually, federal courts have the last word on interpreting federal statutes, and state courts have the last word on interpreting state statutes.
Cases are based on actual lawsuits that were filed. As a general rule, to file a lawsuit, an individual first goes to trial court (the name will vary, depending on what state you are in. In federal courts, this is called district court). The loser is allowed to challenge the decision in appellate court. Finally, the loser in appellate court may sometimes appeal again, to the highest court in the state or federal system, the supreme court. Be careful, though, because even this name is used differently in different states -- in New York, the “Supreme Court” is a trial court.
When you read opinions, they are usually from the state or federal appellate court or supreme court.
Finding a U.S. Supreme Court Case
The Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the country, and the opinions of the majority of its judges (called "justices") are the final word on what federal law means. The Supreme Court can decide what a legislature meant when it wrote a law, or it can even overturn (revoke) a federal or state statute if it finds it unconstitutional.
You can view all of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decisions (going back at least five years) and get tips on accessing earlier opinions on the Court's official website at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/opinions.aspx.
Finding Other Cases
U.S. Court of Appeals. You can use Google Scholar to locate any recent (or not-so-recent) U.S. Court of Appeals decision. Just select a jurisdiction to search and enter a case name or search term.
U.S. District Court and Bankruptcy Court. Using Google Scholar, you can also access most U.S. District Court and U.S. Bankruptcy Court decisions. Just choose a jurisdiction (or multiple jurisdictions) in which to conduct your search (by case name or search term, i.e. "tax fraud").
Google Scholar also gives you access to many state court cases, including those issued at the appellate level and by the state's highest court. For example, by selecting "Florida" under the list of jurisdictions, you can search both Florida District Court of Appeals and Florida Supreme Court decisions (or you can limit your search to just one of those jurisdictions).
You can also find cases at law libraries. If you do not know where the nearest law library is, call the clerk of your local court, do a web search, or look in the government section of the phone book. Many cities or counties have public libraries available, as do law schools. The librarian should be able to help you find the relevant cases.
Like statutes, each case has a special citation. If you know the citation of the case you are looking for, this will help you locate it more easily. Generally, case citations begin with the volume number, the volume title, and the page number. For example, the citation 384 U.S. 436 is in volume 384 of the U.S. Reports on page 436.
Important U.S. Acts, Cases, Documents, and Speeches
Legal documents have played a large role in shaping our nation's legal and political landscape. Nolo has compiled lists of 40 of the most important legal documents in four categories -- Supreme Court cases, Acts, historical documents, and speeches. True to Nolo style, we provide not only the text of the document, but also a brief summary of the document and its importance in American legal history. You can read the Bill of Rights, learn about the role of Brown v. Board of Education in the civil rights movement, or become inspired by great orators like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Abraham Lincoln. To review the lists and read the documents, go to Nolo's Most Important Documents in American Legal History.