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LGST 100: Foundations of Legal Studies: Look up Laws on the Books (US)

U.S. Law Sources - Statutory Law

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

  • To find a U.S. law for which you have a citation, enter the citation you have near the top of the home screen where it says Search.  Your citation must be in the following format: "__ USC __" or "__USCS__" or "__USCA__" without the quotes and where the blanks are numbers.
    • You can enter the § symbol if you have one, but its not needed.
    • If your citation has periods in the abbreviation, you can ignore them or enter them.
    • TIP: If your citation is to USC, change it to USCS.  USCS means its from the Nexis Code Service, which can provide you not only the current code, but additional information like background, history, or any changes that have occurred since the law was passed..
  • 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 "United States Code Service" 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.

Other federal statutory law sources:

  • U.S. Code, 1994-Present, via FDSys - the federal government's online archive of official codified laws - pick a year for which you want to see the law as stood at that time.
  • U.S. Code, Current only, KF62 [year].A2, Doe Reference - in print (2012, supplemented through 2015, is the latest)

U.S. Law Sources - Background for Statutes

Annotated codes - Two publishers create sets of the same laws that are in U.S.C. (see "What Are Statutory and Case Law?" below), but add annotations - editorial content that helps researchers find out more about how the law has been interpreted and applied. The "law on the books" (the statutory language itself) will be the same as in U.S.C.

  • U.S.C.S., KF62 .L3 - another brand of annotated code; in print (to current supplementation) at the Law Library and online via Nexis Uni (formerly LexisNexis Academic)
  • U.S.C.A., KF62 .W4  - the "A" stands for annotated; in print (to current supplementation) at the Law Library's Reserve Collection

Before codification in U.S. Code, laws passed by Congress are published in the order passed in a series called Statutes at Large. If your research project involves discovering legislative intent, you will want to check out our Guide to Congressional Publications as well. The UCB Law Library has additional resources on finding and interpreting the law.

For background on the congressional process that led to enactment of a federal law, Proquest Legislative Insight is the best resource to use. Use the name of the law (e.g. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977) to find a list of documents - including bills, congressional committee hearings, Congressional Record transcripts of debate on the floor of Congress, and so on - related to the drafting and passage of the law.

U.S. Law Sources - Case Law

Nexis Uni (formerly LexisNexis Academic) is the easiest source to use for current federal 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, then choose the dropdown for Jurisdiction and select the jurisdiction you are interested in. 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, choose "federal" and fill out the form with your keywords and click search. After the search runs, you can limit or add additional keywords with options on the left side of the screen.

U.S. Law Sources - Background for Cases

When looking at a court opinion in Nexis Uni, check the right side of the screen for Nexis's Shepardizing service. Shepard's is a citator, and helps you find background of your case, as well as other materials you might consider for the "law in action" part of the assignment.  Also, check the icons next to the name of the case for their description in the Shepards box.  Additional information on the case is also provided:

  • prior history - list of any decisions of courts in the same matter that came before the decision you are checking. For example, prior history might show details about how the dispute arose before the legal decision contained int he case you are checking.
  • subsequent history - list of any decisions of courts in the same matter that came after the decision you are checking. For example, subsequent history might show, for example, how a lower court, on remand, applied the legal ruling announced by the higher court in your case.
  • other citing sources (law reviews & articles) - lists of other cases, law journal articles and other materials that have cited, discussed, analyzed or applied a ruling from the case you are checking. See the Law in Action section of this guide for details on narrowing down from this list.

Another way to Shepardize is from the home screen: enter "shep: [case citation]" (case citation is the volume, reporter abbreviation and page number only, not the party names or the year of decision - for example, for Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), enter just shep: 410 U.S. 113). Click search and you will see all the cases that have reinterpreted, overturned or changed the ruling since it was originally made. 

TIP: Law review articles about your case can be a good type of source to check first, so skip to that part of the list. Many of these articles should be linked to full text within Nexis Uni, but if an article you are interested in is not, copy the citation and look for the full text in HeinOnline. The citation for an article would look like this: 41 Willamette L. Rev. 373 (2005), so entering 41 Willamette L. Rev. 373 on Hein Online's citation tab should bring up the article.

What Are Federal Statutory and Case Law?

Statutory Law

Statutes - often simply called laws - in the federal system are laws created by Congress. They are organized into "codified" law and published as the United States Code. The current U.S.C. represents the federal "law on the books" in effect now.

  • citations look like "42 U.S.C. § 7401" which translates to Title 42 (broad topic of Public Health and social Welfare, where many environmental laws are codified) of United States Code, section 7401 (beginning of a series of sections containing the Clean Air Act); you would look in the volume of U.S.C. that contains Title 42 and look for section 7401.

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 the federal system, these are published in chronological order in different "reporters" that collect case law from the different levels of the federal court system:

  • United States Reports is the official reporter of the United States Supreme Court, the highest court in the federal system - citations look like Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), which translates to a case between a party named Roe and a party named Wade, appearing in volume 410 of the United States Reports starting at page 113 and issued in 1973.
  • Federal Reporter is a reporter of the circuit courts of appeals and several specialty courts of appeals in the federal system - citations will include the reporter abbreviation F., F.2d (for Second Series), or F.3d (Third Series) but otherwise work the same way as the U.S. reports, above.
  • Federal Supplement and Federal Rules Decisions are reporters of district courts (the trial courts) in the federal system - citations will have the reporter abbreviation F. Supp. or F.R.D.
    • 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.
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