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Legal Research Guide for Public Patrons: Understanding Primary Law

The purpose of this LibGuide is to provide legal resources for individuals without any formal legal training.

Main Types of Legal Resources

There are four main types of legal resources (primary authority) that you will encounter when conducting legal research: constitutions, statutes, regulations, and cases.

This page is designed to provide an overview of those categories of legal resources.

Quimbee. (2016). Primary sources.

Constitutions

In addition to the U.S. Constitution, each state also has its own constitution. The U.S. Constitution is considered the "floor" when it comes to fundamental rights. While every state must protect the rights provided in the U.S. Constitution, states may also go "above and beyond" to provide additional protections for citizens.

The United States Constitution: The National Archives has provided an online transcription of the text of the U.S. Constitution. 

The Annenberg Guide to the United States Constitution: This free online resource does an excellent job of helping explain each individual section of the U.S. Constitution. The actual text is followed by an explanation of what that portion means. This is a wonderful resource to help people understand the individual components of the U.S. Constitution. 

State Constitutions: Ballotpedia, a free online encyclopedia of American politics, provides a compilation of all 50 state constitutions. This resource also identifies the year the current version was adopted, as well as the number of revisions.

Statutes

Both Congress and state legislatures are responsible for enacting legislation in each respective jurisdiction. Statutes are considered highly valuable primary authority because they must pass through a legislature (filled with elected representatives) to become law.

United States Code: After Congress enacts laws, those laws are codified into what is called the United States Code. The U.S.C. is a compilation of all current federal laws in the United States. The U.S.C. is available for free from the Office of the Law Revision Counsel.

State Codes: Like in the federal system, individual states codify laws into state codes. Justia is a free online database that provides access to current state codes for all 50 states, as well as the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Justia also provides previous versions of state codes, but there are often missing years and do not go too far back into the past.

Regulations

Federal Register: Federal agencies are responsible for promulgating regulations to further the goals of acts passed by Congress. The Federal Register is updated daily on weekdays and maintained by the federal government. This resource contains proposed and final regulations. Citizens have the ability to comment on proposed regulations during the applicable Notice & Comment Period. This is a great resource to see what is going on in areas of law you are interested in, and to voice your opinions about proposed regulations before they are promulgated.

Code of Federal Regulations: Once federal regulations have been promulgated, all current regulations are compiled into the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Because this is another government resource, it is accessible online for free. The eCFR also allows you to view recent changes to specific sections within the CFR.

State Administrative Codes: Individual states also have their own administrative codes filled with state regulations. The Legal Information Institute, an online database provided for free by Cornell Law School, contains individual state administrative codes. These codes go by different names depending on the state it is for. It is important to make yourself familiar with the administrative process for the state you are dealing with so that you do not miss any crucial details.

Cases

Both federal and state court systems are very complex, with many different names and rules. However, at the most basic level, all court follow the same structure: trial courts, intermediate courts, and courts of last resort.

Federal Level

Supreme Court of the United States: The website for the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) contains all SCOTUS cases dating back to 1991. This website also lists recent SCOTUS decisions and provides a calendar which identifies argument days, non-argument days, and more.

  • Oyez: This is an unofficial online resource that contains SCOTUS cases dating back to 1789. For each case, this resource provides the facts of the case, the legal question presented, and the court's decision and reasoning. Oyez also provides analysis of the oral arguments that were made before SCOTUS.

United States Courts of Appeals: Justia provides a free compilation of court cases decided by each Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. This resource also includes an online version of the Second and Third Series of the Federal Reporter, which is the name of the reporter that Circuit Court decisions are published in.

United States District Courts: The Public Access to Electronic Court Records (PACER) service makes it possible to locate district court cases and docket information. Anyone can create an account, but there are costs associated with viewing documents. 

  • Justia: Like with U.S. Courts of Appeals cases, Justia also provides access to cases, dockets, and filings from U.S. District Courts. Users can search by circuit, which is divided up into district courts, or by type of lawsuit.

State Level

Without a subscription database like Lexis or Westlaw, it can be difficult to find state court cases. Each individual state is responsible for compiling its own cases. In many instances, locating trial court documents is impossible. To locate state court cases, the best place to start is with state court websites. Below are some places to search for state court cases in the southeast.

Alabama: The Alabama Judicial System has a website with links to trial courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court of Alabama. For users interested in locating trial court documents, Alabama provides a link to its on-demand public access system called Just One Look. This resource is open to the public, but there are costs associated with searching names and cases.

Florida: The Florida Court System provides links to trial courts by county and circuit. Those links redirect the user to individual courts throughout Florida. Users can also access the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal, but must be an authorized user (attorney, self-represented litigant, court reporter, etc.).

Georgia: The Judicial Council of Georgia lists all of Georgia's state and superior courts in one place. When searching for a case record, clicking on a specific county links you to Georgia's filing system called PeachCourt. Anyone can create an account on PeachCourt, but there are costs associated with accessing and filing documents.

Legal Research Tips for the Nonlawyer

For those wanting further discussion about using legal resources, check out the following:

  • Lynn Foster, Electronic Legal Research, Access to the Law, and Citation Form for Case Law: Comparison, Contrasts, and Suggestions for Arkansas Practitioners, 16 U. Ark. Little Rock L. Rev. 233 (1994). This article provides background information about two main legal research subscription database: Westlaw and Lexis. It includes a discussion of Boolean Operators in these databases. This is an excellent article for those wishing to understand the history of online legal research and tips for effective searching.
     
  • Tammy Pettinato, Legal Research for the Nonlaw Librarian: An Introduction, 5 Public Services Quarterly 155 (June 2009). This article is catered to non-law librarians who may be asked a legal research question. Although this article is written specifically for librarians, the principles remain the same for any nonlawyers wishing to perform legal research. This article does a wonderful job of explaining the different types of primary and secondary sources people encounter while conducting legal research.
     
  • Legal Research for Non-Lawyers: This LibGuide, created and maintained by Duke University, lays out the basic principles of legal research. There are separate discussions of secondary sources, internet legal research, and more. There are various sources mentioned throughout this LibGuide that would be helpful for nonlawyers. For example, there is a link to a guide created by the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) titled How to Research a Legal Problem: A Guide for Non-Lawyers. This guide advises nonlawyers of places to go and what sources to consult when conducting legal research. It also references manuals about legal research that may be useful.

 

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