Skip to main content

LGST 100: Foundations of Legal Studies: Look up Laws on the Books (State and Local)

State Law Sources - Statutory Law

The following terms refer to statutory law: acts, statutes, codes, and bills. Statutory law in California consists of the Constitution plus acts passed by the California Legislature and signed by the Governor. These laws are then organized into Codes (organized by topic), which are published to reflect current law. Similarly, other states' laws are passed by the legislature (sometimes called a General Assembly), signed by the governor and codified into codes having either topical titles (e.g., California's Business & Professions Code or New York's Corrections Code) or a numeric identifier (e.g., Connecticut's Title 33, corporations law).  Most states have an annotated code, which can give you additional background, history, relevant cases, and sometimes law review articles (if available) to the law.

Nexis Uni (formerly LexisNexis Academic) is the easiest source to use for current state law "on the books":

  • To find a state law for which you have a citation, enter the citation you have near the top of the home screen where it says Search. 
    • You can enter the § symbol if you have one, but it is not needed.
    • If your citation has periods in the abbreviation, you can ignore them or enter them.
  • To search for laws by keyword, click the option "A Publication" from the Nexis Uni home screen.  Enter your keywords under "Search for something specific."  Under "Find a Publication," enter "California deerrings annotated" (minus the quotes).  In the list that appears, choose the one without index.  Then click search.  After your search runs, you will have options to narrow, refine, or add additional keywords to your search on the left side of the screen.
    • For other states, enter the name of the state and annotated, for instance for Oregon, enter "Oregon annotated" (minus the quotes) and choose the best match from the list.  Please note that not all states have annotated codes in Nexis Uni.

Other sources for California statutory law:

  • CA Code Online, Current Only
    • find by citation by selecting the topic title (e.g., click on Business & Professions Code for a citation to Bus. & Prof. Code), then look for your section number among the section ranges in brackets (e.g., find section 22792 by looking in the range [22970-22991]
    • search just the text of the statutes, by clicking on the Text Search tab - choose topic area(s) first, then search for terms (e.g., check boxes for Streets & Highways Code and for Vehicle Code, use the "at least ONE of these words or phrases" to look for bicycle OR bike)
  • Deering's California Codes, Annotated.
    Commercially produced collection of permanent California laws arranged by subject. Includes annotations, legislative history information, court decisions interpreting or applying the statute, etc. Each title has an index in the last volume and there is a General Index to the entire set. Updated by pocket parts and revised volumes. Selected official codes (eg. vehicle, education, penal, etc.) are available in Doe Reference. (can also be keyword searched in Nexis Uni)
    • Paper, Current Only, KFC30.5D4 A-Z Doe Reference
    • Nexis Uni has Deerings Codes, Annotated
      • Click the dropdown for content type and choose "Statutory Codes"
      • Next, click the dropdown for jurisdiction and choose California
      • Choose the code you are interested in (Education, Family, etc)
      • In the next screen, enter the section number.
  • Larmac Consolidated Index to the Constitution and Laws of California.
    Annual publication containing an alphabetical index to the California constitution, all the codes, the general laws and rules of the California Supreme Court.
    • KA70L36 Doe Reference (latest)

California Laws - Background/Historical Information

If you want the text of law as it was originally enacted and signed by the governor, without any changes that may have amended the law since original enactment, go to the Statutes of California and Amendments to the Code.

  • The Statutes of California and Amendments to the Codes.... 1849/50-
    Chronological arrangement of laws enacted by the California legislature. Includes full text of statutes and resolutions subarranged by chapter number. The last volume of each session contains a subject index and a table of affected laws. Since 1967 the Summary Digest is included.
  • California. Chapters...regular session.
    • KFC25.A56 Doe Reference current years only; replaced in bound form by Statutes.

For background on the process that led to enactment of a California law, you can try to find legislative history documents related to the drafting and passage of the law. The Law Library's research guide on finding legislative history documentation takes you through that research process step by step, but the most productive and informative documents to look for are usually to be found in legislative documents called the bill versions (to the extent any contain statements of legislative purpose), legislative intent letters, and the Governor's chaptered bill file.

State Law Sources - Case Law

Nexis Uni (formerly LexisNexis Academic) is the easiest source to use for current state case law "on the books"

  • To find a case for which you have a citation, click Get a Doc Assistance from the home page.  From here, you have three options to find case:
    • From the default page, select the dropdown for content type and choose Cases and your Jurisdiction. This option is good if you know the exact reporter you need.
    • Click "Cases by Party Name" and fill in either the party names and select the jurisdiction and/or year if known. (e.g., Goldberg and Kelly in the boxes for searching by Parties) or the numeric citation (e.g., 397 U.S. 254 in the box for searching By Citation)
      • Note if you only have the party names, you will likely get a long list of cases, and the one you want will not necessarily be at the top of te list; look for other citation clues like the court that issued the decision, the year the decision was issued, etc.
    • Click "Cases by Docket Number" to search for cases by docket number if you have it.  You will also need to know the jurisdiction.
  • To search for cases by keyword: from the home page, click Cases. Once the page reloads, chose state, then type n the name of the state in the box that appears.  Fill out the rest of the search form and click search.  Once the search runs, you can sort/limit your results using options on the left side of the screen.

State Law Sources - Background for Cases

See the tab on Federal Laws on the Books, and follow the instructions in the box called U.S. Law Sources - Background for Cases. The process is the same for using the Shepard's service to look up materials that have cited to a state court opinion.

Strategies for Locating Local Laws (Municipal Codes)

Many California cities have their local codes online. Outside of California, locating local county and city laws can be difficult because not all local governments have posted their laws online. Below are some strategies for locating local laws:

  • The Law Library maintains a list of databases that provide access to municipal codes and other local legal/governmental information such as county ordinances and local lawmaking bodies' records.
    • type municipal into the filter box at the top of the Law Library's Databases list to see available databases
    • Any given database will only have laws for the cities that pay that vendor to maintain their laws, and generally you will only be able to search or look at a single city's laws at a time (you can't search across all the cities with a single search)
  • If the above doesn't work, Google the name of the city and "municipal code"
  • Explore the city's website. Some cities will link to their code, or contract with a company that maintains the code for them.
  • If all else fails, contact the city but keep in mind that this can be a very time consuming process. 

Note that, in many jurisdictions, while there are courts called municipal, city or county courts, there generally is no "case law" at the local level. Decisions or rulings based on local laws may be issued by a variety of courts, but state courts at the appellate or high court level are the only courts which can announce decisions that interpret or apply laws in a way that can be called judge-made law.

What Are State Statutory and Case Law?

Statutory Law

Statutes - often simply called laws - in states are laws created by a legislative body, often called the Legislature or the General Assembly. Statutes are usually organized and published as a "Code," "Consolidated Laws," or other system of "codified" law. The current codified law publication for any state represents the state's "law on the books" in effect now - for California, this is published privately by two companies, as West's Annotated California Codes and Deering's California Codes, Annotated..

  • citations look like "Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200" which translates to California's Business and Professions Code, section 17200 (beginning of a series of sections containing the Unfair Business Practices Act); you would look in the volume of West's or Deering's California codes, under B for Business and look for the volume with section 17200.

Case Law

Case law - also called opinions, court rulings, decisions, or just cases - are a form of "judge-made" law in that cases can set forth legal rules and interpretations of other laws. In state courts, these are published in different "reporters" that collect case law from the various states, usually only from the appellate and high (supreme) court levels. For example:

  • California Reports is the official reporter of the California Supreme Court, the highest court in California - citations look like Stanson v. Mott, 17 Cal. 3d 206 (1976), which translates to a case between a party named Stanson and a party named Mott, appearing in volume 17 of the California Reports, Third Series, starting at page 206 and issued in 1976.
  • California Appellate Reports is the official reporter of the courts of appeals of California - citations will include the reporter abbreviation Cal. App., Cal. App. 2d (for Second Series), etc., but otherwise work the same way as the Ca;. citations above.
    • Note: although cases in trial courts may form part of the background in how a legal rule developed, or will often show how a legal rule is being carried out, generally a district court cannot establish a legal rule because trial courts are not "mandatory authority" - their rulings are not "binding" as precedent that must be followed by other courts.
Copyright © 2014-2016 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Except where otherwise noted, this work is subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License.