A Basic Legal Research Guide

This is a quick-and-dirty guide to basic legal research skills.

Anyone who starts a legal research project without first going to law school faces a huge challenge. Trying to understand the maze of the different publications can be confusing and daunting.

In the United States, the law comes from three different sources; codes, cases and regulations. Codes are compliations of laws passed by Congress and the state legislatures. Cases are decisions on lawsuits made by state and federal judges. Regulations are rules made by state and federal government agencies.

Codes are usually found in one set of books. Laws passed by Congress can be found in the United States Code. The U.S. Code has fifty titles that cover different areas of the law, from veterans benefits to patents to food and drugs to foriegn affairs. (The Constitution is in Title 1 of the U.S. Code.)

A typical legal citation for a code is 16 U.S.C. 719(b)(1). To look this up, go to Title 16 of the United States Code (Conservation) and go to Section 719 (not page 719). Every section of the code is in an outline format, so it's easy to find subsection (b), paragraph (1). (That particular law is about a design contest for drawing duck stamps.)

No two state codes are alike; there's no one pattern that will help you in looking up state laws. If you're looking for state laws, you have to familiarize yourself with the system used in your state. Some states, like Texas, are in the process of switching from one system to the other, and it can be very confusing to find the appropriate code.

The important thing in researching all codes is to look in the back of the book. There, you may find a "pocket part", a paperback insert that tells you if the law you're looking at has been changed. Because it's so expensive to print new books every time a law changes, the publishers issue "pocket parts" to provide updates. You need to check these updates to see if the law has changed.

Looking up cases is more confusing, mostly because there are at least three different kinds of judges who write these cases. The most numerous are at the lowest level, the district courts. Someone who loses at the district court level can appeal to an intermediate appeals court. In the federal system, there are twelve such "circuit" courts; the First through the Eleventh Circuit and the District of Columbia Circuit. The circuits are divided by goegraphy; the First Circuit is the New England states, the Ninth Circuit is the Pacific Coast states, the Eleventh Circuit is the Southeastern states. Anyone who loses at the circuit court level can go to the Supreme Court in Washington.

The system is exactly the same at the state level; there are district courts, intermediate courts, and one high court. However, again, each state is different. In Texas, there are two high courts; the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals. In New York, the district courts are

called Supreme Courts. (Nobody knows why.)

Decisions from the three levels in federal court are published in three different places. Cases from the federal district courts are published in a set of books called the Federal Supplement, published by a company called West. Cases from the federal Circuit courts are published in a similar set of books called the Federal Reporter, also published by West. Cases from the Supreme Court are published in the United States Reports, published by the government. (West publishes its own version of the United States Reports called the Supreme Court Reporter, and another company publishes a "Lawyer's Edition".

All of these have abbreviations. Federal Supplements are "F.Supp" or "F.Supp2d". Federal Reporters are "F" or F.2d" or "F.3d". United States Reports are always U.S., and are the most important of the Supreme Court abbreviations.

Every case has a page number and reference. Let's take an imaginary case: "Snoopy v. Red Baron". If that case is marked as being 886 F.Supp 1411, what that tells you is that it is in the 886th volume of the first version of the Federal Supplement, and starts on page 1411. If the case was appealed to a circuit court, it might be at 921 F.2d 18, which would be the 18th page of volume 921 of the second Federal Reporter. (Note: the volumes

only go up to 999; after the 999th volume in the Federal Reporter, the odometer clicked over to the first volume of the second Federal Reporter.)

State courts are very different. All levels of state court decisions go into regional reporters. All Texas cases go into the Southwestern Reporter, or "S.W.". The Texas cases are thrown in with cases from Arkansas and Kentucky and Missouri. Oklahoma's cases are in the Pacific Reporter,

Louisiana's are in the Southern Reporter. This is very confusing, but if you see "119 S.W.3d 711" you know you've got a state case, Volume 119 of the third Southwestern Reporter, page 711. (You won't know what state it's from until you look it up, also, you won't know what kind of court it is.)

Federal regulations are contained in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Like the United States Code, the CFR has fifty titles; however, the titles of the CFR don't always match up with the U.S. Code. (Nobody knows why.) The CFR uses a decimal system rather than an outline system, so a typical CFR site would be 40 CFR 304.32. Generally, because the CFR system is so complicated, it's best to look up the law first; the laws give the federal agencies the authority to issue the regulations.

© High Speed Ventures 2011