Fundamentals of Legal Research
Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
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Statutes are a critically important source of law, and no legal research project is complete without a consideration of applicable statutory provisions. Statutory research is rarely sufficient in itself, however. The courts are frequently called upon to explain and interpret statutory language in the resolution of legal arguments. Thus, proper legal research will include both the applicable statutes as well as the cases that explain and interpret those statutes. Under the doctrine of precedence, the interpretation of a statute by the courts is binding law.
When laws are passed by Congress, they are categorized as either public laws or private laws. As one would suspect, public laws are those laws that are of interest to the public in general. Private laws, on the other hand, are laws that impact only a specific individual or group of people. Private laws often involve personal issues, such as an individual’s immigration status. After the law is labeled as public or private, it is assigned a number.
The number includes the number of the Congress, followed by the chronological number of the bill. So, the second public law passed by the 113th Congress would be styled as Public Law 113-2. At this point, the law has two identifying numbers: the number assigned to the resolution by the House or the Senate, and its Public Law designation it receives after passage into law. After each law is passed, it is published in pamphlet form, known as a slip law. At the end of the congressional session, all of the new laws are collected in a bound volume of laws known as Statutes at Large. Statutes at Large is published in chronological order, meaning that the laws appear in the order that they were passed into law, not by subject matter.
Both slip law and Statutes at Large are very difficult to research because there is no logic to then organization of the materials. In order to remedy this difficult situation for the legal researcher, the federal statutes are codified. Codification is the process of organizing the laws by topic rather than chronologically. A code, then, is a subject matter arranged collection of public laws. The United States Code contains all of the permanent laws passed by Congress, organized by topic. Note that the logic of codes may not always agree with the researcher’s idea as to where a statute should be located. Take a law prohibiting the possession of alcohol by a minor. At first glance, this seems like a criminal law, and if that were so, the statute would be found in the criminal code. Most states would, however, place this law in a special section dealing with juvenile status offenses, often categorized as family law. In researching code law, diligence is required to make sure that all possible laws of interest have been identified, not merely the ones assigned to a particular code section.
The United States Code is arranged into fifty sections. These highest-level headings are referred to as Titles. These general topics are arranged alphabetically, but most legal researchers will use the title number to locate specific code sections. Titles are further divided into sections, with each section being a specific law. The title and section number are the official method of citing a specific part of the code, but legal professionals often refer to the various titles informally by name, such as “the criminal code” or “the bankruptcy code.” These names are so common that the code contains a popular name index.
As a technical matter, it is the statutory language enacted directly by Congress that is law, and not the Code. The United States Congress and the legislative assemblies often enact codes into positive law so that the codes can be cited as primary sources and thus are officially the law of the land. This means that Statues at Large is seldom cited. It is only referred to when the researcher cannot cite the code section because it has not been published at the time the research was conducted. This problem seldom arises today because electronic media has made publication of the code nearly simultaneous with the passage of the law.
On occasion, legal disputes arise as to the specific meaning of a particular section of a legal code. When this happens in an actual legal dispute, the courts are called upon to interpret the statue. As a matter of legal tradition, the courts give great weight to the legislative intent of the law. In other words, the courts will seek to articulate what it was that the legislature was attempting to accomplish by passing the statute in the first place. Various documents can prove valuable to the courts in making such a determination. The original language of the bill and any changes to that language over time often provides evidence of legislative intent. Transcripts of committee hearings and congressional debates often prove useful. To aid in researching legislative histories, West publishes the United States Code and Congressional and Administrative News (U.S.C.C.A.N.). This series contains the legislative histories of statutes, federal regulations, and court rules.
There are three major publications of the United States Code. The United States Code (abbreviated U.S.C.) is the official publication, published by the United States Government Printing Office (GPO). West publishes the United States Code Annotated(abbreviated U.S.C.A.). The United States Code Service (U.S.C.S.) is a product of LEXIS. The annotations provided by the commercial publishers provide valuable research tools, such as information about cases that have interpreted the code as well as other legal resources that provide useful information. Note that these research aids are not part of the code and are not a binding statement of law. To cite such material, you must trace the original, primary sources of law and cite those.
Printed versions of codes are very, very expensive. Rather than throwing out those expensive volumes when they become dated, legal publishers have developed a supplement to each volume that is inserted into a special pocket built into the back cover of the books. These pocket part supplements are published each year and made available by a subscription service. Thus, whenever a law is repealed or modified (amended), the change will be reflected in the pocket part supplement. The pocket parts are even more important to the researcher using commercial versions of the code. Along with the actual statutes, the annotations are updated as well. This provides information about new cases that have interpreted the code since the printing of the hardbound version. Legal researchers conducting research into code provisions using printed codes should check the code and the pocket part supplements for the relevant statute.
At the state level, statutes are enacted and codified in a similar process to the one used by the federal Congress. Laws are made by state legislators and then codified. Just as the process of making the law is similar, researching state statutes is similar to researching federal statutes. While it is impossible to describe a process that would be accurate for all fifty States, some very common generalizations can be made. Much like the federal laws, most state statutes are first published as slip laws. Most states have a publication similar to Statutes at Large, but what the series is called varies from state to state. Many states call these early chronological publications session laws. Finally, the state statutes are organized topically into a state code. Some states, such as California (e.g., the California Penal Code), give official names to different Titles of the state code, and the official citation is by that name. Many states follow the numbering system used by the United States Code.
While most laws are made at the state and federal level, our system of government allows for minor statues to be made by municipal (city) and county governments. Such laws are often called ordinances. These can be very difficult to research because they are not widely published. They will usually be made available to the public by some city agency, in a public library, or in the county courthouse. Many municipal ordinances are now available online, but this practice varies widely depending on the financial and technology resources of the particular city or county. Law enforcement agencies usually keep a copy of the ordinances enforced by their particular department.
Modification History File Created: 08/08/2018 Last Modified: 06/13/2019
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