The easiest way to find a copy of a state law (also called a statute) is if you already know its citation–that is, the number of the specific statute. If you don't know the statute's citation, there are both Internet and print resources to help you find statutes on a particular subject.
If You Know the Citation
Citations to state statutes normally refer to the title (or volume) and section numbers. The three examples shown in Figure 1 are typical.
Some states' laws are divided up into several different topical sections. In states such as New York and California, citations look like those shown below.
When you know the statute's citation, then you can use the Internet or a local law library to get a copy.
Using the Internet
Every state now maintains its statutes on the Internet. The websites vary in their format, but almost all of them allow you to search for statutes by topic, keyword, or citation. Start your search with Nolo.com's legal research pages (at www.nolo.com; go to "Site Map," then " State Law Resources"). This will guide you to your state's website containing laws and other legislative materials.
If your state's official website does not allow you to search by topic or keyword, then try one of the following websites:
- FindLaw (www.findlaw.com).
- The Cornell Legal Information Institute (www.law.cornell.edu) lets you search for statutes by topic as well as by name. The "search by topic" feature is under the "Law by Source or Jurisdiction" section of the website.
Using the Library
If you don't have Internet access, you can find state laws in your local public law library. Use the annotated version of the statute book if possible, because that version includes additional information that will help with research. These books also have subject indexes or tables of contents that you can use to find statutes on particular topics. For example, if someone has cut down your tree, you'd look under "trees." Nothing useful there? Try "timber" or "trespass"–anything you can think of. Sometimes finding a particular state statute is easy. But sometimes, depending on the subject and the particular state, it can take quite a bit of time and patience. A few states have pretty bad indexes.
Make Sure the Law Is Current
Once you've found the law you need, make sure it hasn't been changed or repealed. If you're reading an ordinance online, the source will tell you what year's version of the law you're looking at. At the library, check the front or back of the book of statutes for updates. Just look for the number of the law in the update material. If nothing is there under that number, it means there has been no change. If you find a change, it replaces the law printed in the hardbound volume. If there is nothing but the word "repealed" after the number of the law, the law printed in the hardbound volume is no longer in effect.
Reading and Interpreting a Statute
When you find a statute on your subject, read it carefully. Remember that the laws are written by lawyers, many of whom seem unable to write in plain English. (How wonderful it would be if other states could learn from North Dakota. That state not only has a good index, but the laws are clearly written in a style that puts other state statutes to shame.)
Figure 1 shows a page from a volume of state statutes. This state law on spite fences is from the annotated laws of Massachusetts. Let's look at the different pieces of information on the page:
- 1 the topic of the statute
- 2 the section number of the statute
- 3 the name of the statute
- 4 the text of the statute
- 5 historical information including when the statute was enacted (1887), and when it was modified
- 6 a listing of reference materials that discuss the statute
- 7 a subject index of cases interpreting the statute
- 8 a citation to a case discussing the statute, and
- 9 the page number of the book in which the statute appears.
Sometimes you'll want to read a judicial decision interpreting a particular statute–for example, if the phrasing of the statute is unclear or if you want to know how the court applied the statute in a particular situation. To find cases interpreting a statute, check the listings after the text of the statute in an annotated version of your state's statutes, which you can find in the law library.
In the annotated code, one-sentence summaries of court cases that interpret the statute directly follow the notes on the statute's history. (See number 8 in Figure 3.) Some statutes have been interpreted by the courts so many times that the publisher includes a little index to the case summaries, which are organized by issues raised by the statute. (See number 7 in Figure 3.) It is often difficult to tell from such a brief summary whether or not a case is in fact relevant to your problem. Fortunately, the summaries also contain a case citation that allows you to look up the case and read it for yourself. It is essential that you read the case itself and not just rely on what it says in the annotation.
Annotated statutes are not available online except for a fee. At Westlaw(www.westlaw.com), you can pay a fee by credit card and then enter the citation for a statute and receive a list of all court cases discussing the law.