Procedural Law | Characteristics of Primary Sources

Fundamentals of Procedural Law

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.


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Primary sources usually represent the initial statement of a law.  A potential drawback to these early forms is that they are published chronologically.  This means that they are published in the order that the laws were made. Statutes published in the order passed by the legislature are known as session laws.  This presents a problem for the legal researcher; most of the time, researchers are interested in finding laws based on the subject of the law. When statutes are arranged by subject matter and index, the result is referred to as a code.  Cases do not lend themselves well to a process similar to the codification of statutes and remain published in chronological order. There are, however, finding tools to aid in the location of cases that cover a particular subject matter.

Another characteristic of primary sources of law is that they are usually published in both official versions and commercial versions.  The version published by the government is usually the official version, and it is usually a legal requirement that the official version be cited in court documents.  The primary reasons that legal researchers resort to commercial publications is the speed at which they are made available, and the handy tools added by the publisher to make legal research easier.

Some secondary sources, especially textbooks, will attempt to treat both state and federal laws in a given subject area.  Primary sources, on the other hand, tend to be very specific in the jurisdiction that is covered. In other words, you will examine one resource for federal laws and another completely different resource to discover the parallel law for your state.  In some cases, you may need to research both state and federal laws because both apply to the same factual circumstances.

For example, let us say that you are a police officer concerned with the roadside search of vehicles that you believe to contain contraband (such as illicit drugs).  This is a matter of procedural law, and the most likely source for rules governing searches will be court cases interpreting constitutional provisions. As nearly every criminal justice student knows, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution regulates searches.  To find out how the fourth amendment has been interpreted to apply to roadside searches of automobiles, you will need to consult United States Supreme Court Cases. In addition, every state has its own constitution, and each state’s Supreme Court interprets the provisions of those constitutions.  There may be procedural rules promulgated by the state that need to be considered.

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/10/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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