When starting any research project, it can be helpful to write down what you already know, what questions you are hoping to answer, and then develop a strategy for how you will conduct your research.
Download the Legal Research Worksheet (below) as a tool to help organize your work, starting with a known case or a topical area of law.
General Introduction to Legal Research
Legal materials come from different authorities, in different forms, and cover a variety of subjects. This guide will break these materials down as follows:
The first step in legal research is to prioritize these components of law. The mini-tutorials included below describe these concepts in more detail. The remaining pages of the guide, especially the Articles Page, will help further direct your research.
The federal government is composed of three branches: legislative, judicial, and executive. The interplay between these branches is a classic legal research subject and the groundwork for complex subject-specific legal issues.
State governments are also composed of three branches, which make law in the form of legislation, case law, and state agency regulations. The federal Constitution leaves to states all powers not otherwise granted to the federal government. The relative autonomy of state governments and the interplay between federal and state law is known as federalism.
Local laws are often called ordinances. Ordinances are passed by mini-legislatures, local authorities that govern towns, cities, and counties. In many cases, local government agencies publish policies and procedural manuals that are similar in character and force to ordinances.
The United States recognizes over 600 Indian tribes. The law that governs the status of tribes, their sovereignty, and their relationship to federal government is known as federal Indian law, while tribal law comprises the self-governing laws of recognized tribes and Indian nations.
Judges preside over civil cases between private parties or between state entities and individuals for violating criminal laws. The opinions they write are a source of law that comes from the court system, the judicial branch of government. Together, these judicial opinions form a body of common law that is precedent that courts are bound to follow in future cases. The federal courts and the state courts each have three levels: trial courts, appellate courts, and supreme courts. Opinions are published in reporters and digests which are divided by state, region, or subject matter. Libraries may still have reporters and digests on the shelves, but online databases are now the trusted source for case law.
A quick note on citations: most case citations refer first to the parties, then the volume of the reporter, then the name of the reporter (or other publisher of the case), and finally the page number in that volume that the case falls on. In Westlaw, a legal database referenced below, you can find a case by entering, for example, 531 U.S. 98, which will take you to the 531st volume of the United States Reports, at page 98.
Case law research is sometimes complicated by subsequent, related cases with inevitably different legal issues, parties, and facts before the court. Courts that review the opinions of lower courts sometimes overturn a decision, entirely or just in part, or they may remand the case back down to the lower court to be heard and decided again. Citators are used to update legal research by linking these trial, appellate, and supreme court cases together in a web of law that makes up the common law. As with reporters, citators are most frequently accessed online.
Depending on the context, the terms "law," "legislation," and "statutes" are used to refer to bills that are drafted and approved by legislative bodies and signed by an executive (a Governor or the President). Session laws are published at the end of a legislative session (usually a year) and list legislation in chronological order. Codes contain legislation that is now in force, arranged by subject in "titles" or "parts." Each new edition of a code includes amendments and deletes repealed legislation. Annotated codes are extremely efficient research tools because they are up-to-date and include annotations that point to other legal authorities and formats, such as the legislative history surrounding a law, prior versions of the law, state and federal cases that have interpreted the legislation, regulations that give details about the application of the legislation, and relevant secondary sources such as Restatements of Law.
Statute citations are less standardized than case citations. Legislation can be found by using a public law number, title and section numbers, or a popular name. Common citations to Obamacare, for example, are P.L. 111-148, which is found in the code at 42 U.S.C. ("United States Code") 18001, under the popular name the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act." ProQuest Congressional supplements the annotated codes that are available in Westlaw and NexisUni, and helps get a fuller picture of the life of a bill, from proposal, consideration and amendment in committees, to enactment.
Administrative agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families issue detailed regulations and make decisions in hearings that have the force of law. Just as statutes are first published chronologically as session laws, administrative rules are published in order in the Federal Register, and then later arranged by subject ("codified") in the Code of Federal Regulations, which is organized into a helpful Index in Westlaw and NexisUni. There are corresponding state-level codes of regulations available, as well.
COVID-19 Example: Sources and Authorities
The global novel coronavirus pandemic is a timely example of a legal research issue that can be usefully organized by authorities, formats, and sub-topics.
For example: How are unemployment benefits administered by states? Who has the power to close restaurants to prevent the spread of a communicable disease?
- Authority: You're mostly looking for state- and local-level orders and regulations, usually "executive orders" and state health department regulations and orders. In Wisconsin, a heated debate around how the Department of Health Services decided to address the spread of COVID-19 culminated in a Supreme Court case, Wisconsin Legislature v. Palm, 942 N.W. 2d 900 (May 13, 2020). Further, think through which policy organizations have a vested interest in protecting their specific constituents: small businesses, the incarcerated, older adults, supply-chain labor union members, educators, etc.
- Source/Format: Although a few cases would explore the legal issues related to the coronavirus, most materials will be published by administrative agencies. These regulations are less formally organized than cases and statutes, so expect to spend a little more time exploring agency websites and legal databases to find a regulation related to your question or research problem. The resources listed below are good starting points, especially the collection from the Wisconsin State Law Library.
Breakdown of Subjects, Authorities, and Formats/Sources
Federal or State?
Primary Source of law
|Bankruptcy||Federal||Statute||Some exemptions are covered by state statute|
|Constitutional law||Federal and State||Case law interpreting government action (not private parties)|
|Contract issues||State||Case law|
|Criminal law||State (mostly) or Federal||Statute||Criminal procedure is written into law by statutes, but governed also by state and federal constitutional law|
|Divorce and custody||State||Statute|
|Employment||State and Federal||Statute|
|Health||State and Federal||Statute||The Social Security Act, for example, includes Medicare legislation.|
|Housing||Federal (mostly) or State|
|Intellectual property (copyright and patent)||Federal||Statute||Almost all other property rights are determined under state law.|
|Torts (including accidents)||State||Case law, some statutes|
|Inheritance law||State||Statute||Laws about inheritance are often called "probate" codes.|
This table has been adapted from Healy, Paul (2014). Legal reference for librarians. American Library Association.