Laws and Legal Research

Sometimes you need to look up a law to get an answer to your legal question.

When doing legal research, you'll often need to read the text of a statute or court case to help solve your problem. But tracking down these laws can sometimes be difficult—and even when you do find the law, wading through the "legalese" can be even more challenging. In this article, we'll unpack some of the jargon you might come across when doing your own legal research and offer guidance on how to find—and interpret—federal and state statutes, local municipal codes, and court cases.

Definitions: The Jargon Used in Legislation

As in many other areas of life, legislation comes with some jargon that might seem intimidating at first. But once you master it you should be well on your way to understanding the legislative process. Here are some terms you might encounter when researching federal or state statutes:

Annotated codes: Publications that combine state or federal statutes with summaries of cases that have interpreted the statutes. With a few rare exceptions, annotated codes are only available in law libraries or on subscriber-based legal websites.

Bill: What a statute is called when it is introduced in the U.S. Congress or a state legislature. When a bill is passed by both houses and the President or a state governor, it becomes a law and will usually be published according to its bill number in a publication called "Session Laws" or "Statutes at Large."

Bill number: Bills are referred to by number. The number really has two parts: the abbreviation for the specific wing of the legislature in which the bill is introduced, as in HB (house bill) or SB (senate bill), and the number that identifies the particular bill, as in HB 1507.

Chapter: A term that identifies a group of related state or federal statutes that have been gathered together within a particular title or code.

Chaptered: A bill becomes chaptered if it is approved by the legislature and signed by the governor.

Citation: Formal references to statutes and cases that describe where they are published. For example, the citation 23 Vt. Stat. § 1201 tells us that this cited statute is Section 1201 of Title 23 of the Vermont Statutes. And the citation 42 U.S.C. § 1395 tells us that this cited federal statute can be found in Title 42, Section 1395 of the United States Code.

Code: In general, the term "code" refers to the main body of statutes of the jurisdiction (for example, the United States Code or the Arizona Revised Statutes). The statutes that are published in a state's code are grouped by subject matter into titles, as in Title 11 of the United States Code (bankruptcy laws). In some states, including California, Texas and New York, the term "code" may be used both to refer to the overall collection of statutes and the separate subject matter groupings of statutes, as in "Penal Code," "Family Code," or "Probate Code."

Engrossed: A bill is engrossed when a legislative body (such as the House) votes to approve it and sends it to the other legislative body (such as the Senate).

Enrolled: A bill is enrolled when both houses of a legislative body have voted to approve it, and it has been sent to the executive branch (the President or a state governor) for signing.

Legislative history: Assorted materials generated in the course of creating legislation, including committee reports, analysis by legislative counsel, floor debates, and a history of actions taken. Legislative history for recently enacted federal statutes can be found at www.congress.gov. If you're looking for legislative history for state statutes, your chances of finding it online vary widely, depending on the state and the dates you're interested in. Try searching your state legislature's website to see what is available electronically. If you can't find what you need there, you should be able to find print materials at your local law library.

Session laws: When bills become law, they are compiled and published according to the session of the legislature that enacted them into law. For instance, laws passed by the California legislature in 2021 were passed in the 2021-2022 session. The individual laws in the publication for a particular session (such as Session Laws 2021-2022) can be found according to their original bill number. You can find session laws for recent years on your state legislature's website or on www.congress.gov for federal session laws (sometimes referred to as "Statutes at Large").

Statutory schemes: Groups of statutes that relate to one particular subject. For instance, all of the federal statutes that make up Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (which forbids employment discrimination and sexual harassment) are known as a "statutory scheme" because they are all related to each other.

Title: In the federal system and in some states, "title" is used to denote a collection of state or federal statutes by subject matter, as in Title 11 of the U.S. Code for bankruptcy statutes or Title 42 of the U.S. Code for civil rights statutes. Title is also used to denote a group of statutes within a larger set of statutes, as in Title IX of the Civil Rights Act (which itself is located in Title 42 of the U.S. Code).

For definitions of many more legal terms, see Nolo's Plain-English Law Dictionary.

The Role of Statutes in Our Legal System

When people talk about "the law" or "what the law says," they are generally referring to statutes (sometimes called codes). Statutes, which are created by the U.S. Congress and by our state legislators, attempt to lay out the ground rules of "the law." When disputes arise over the meaning of statutes, state and federal courts issue opinions that interpret the statutes more clearly. This is referred to as "case law." In addition, numerous federal and state agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the IRS, and the various secretary of states' offices, issue regulations that cover the legal areas that the agencies control (such as environmental law, federal taxes, and corporations law).

Should I Search Federal or State Laws?

Most legal research involves state statutes rather than federal statutes, because states have the sole power to make the law in many areas, such as child custody, divorce, landlord-tenant obligations, personal injury claims, and wills and trusts. A growing number of legal areas are covered by both state and federal statutes, such as consumer protection, employment, and food and drug regulation. (State laws give way to stricter federal laws that address the same issue.) Finally, the federal government alone creates the law for a few specific subject areas, including copyrights and patents, bankruptcy, and Social Security.

How to Find a Law

There are two main ways to find a particular state or federal statute on a state legislature's website: by doing a search or by browsing the table of contents. Nearly every state's online code offers a search function. To search, simply enter a few terms that relate to the subject you're looking for into the search box. For instance, if you want to know the minimum number of directors that your state requires a corporation to have, you might use the terms "corporation" and "director."

How to Design a Good Search

To do a good search you need to anticipate the words used in the statutes you are searching. For example, if you are looking for a statute regarding drunk driving in a car, you might choose to use the search terms "vehicle," and "under the influence." If that search pulled up hundreds of statutes, you'll most likely want to narrow the search instead of reading each statute one by one. You might try adding the words "alcohol," "operate," and "breath." On the other hand, if the search doesn't pull up any statutes, you'll probably want to broaden it by using fewer search terms.

However, this process can be difficult because you might not always know the exact terms your state uses to address the issue you're researching. Browsing the table of contents of statutes can often be a better way to find laws on your subject because it lets you look first at the general subjects (usually called titles). From there you can move to particular topics (chapters, or sometimes articles), and then to the precise statutes you need (sections). By browsing, you also get a general idea of the statutes that exist on a specific subject, as well a sense of the terms the statutes use for that topic.

Make Sure to Read Related Statutes

If you're interested in a particular area of the law–small claims court procedures, for example—you should try to read all relevant statutes on that subject. If you don't, you could miss an important statute that contradicts the law you have already found. For instance, one statute might tell you that small claims court can be used for disputes involving $5,000 or less, while another statute that appears later in the chapter might set a lower dollar limit for cases involving evictions.

Fortunately, most statutes are organized in "statutory schemes," which means that statutes related to a particular topic are published together in one title, chapter, section, or act. So, once you find a statute on your subject, it's often a matter of finding out where the statutory scheme starts (usually by backing up to earlier statutes) and then reading all related statutes until you reach a new title, chapter, section or act. For example, if you do a search on small claims procedure and find a relevant statute, you would then need to browse forward and backward until you've found every statute in the small claims chapter that could bear on your particular issue.

Note, though, that sometimes relevant statutes can appear in seemingly unrelated chapters—for instance, a statute requiring landlords to install smoke detectors in rental properties might appear in the public health and safety chapter instead of the main landlord-tenant chapter. So it's often a good idea to try some searches—even after you've located the primary set of statutes that address your research question—just to make sure you're not overlooking crucial information located elsewhere in the code.

One more thing to consider when reading statutes: Sometimes one statute will refer to other statutes. You should take the time to read those statutes, too. Often, they will include definitions, exceptions, further explanations, or other details that are important to your research question.

How to Read a Law

Some statutes are clearly written so that you can easily understand exactly what the legislators intended when they wrote it. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. Many statutes use language that makes it extremely difficult to figure out what "the law" is on a particular subject. Exceptions to rules, confusing words such as "whereas," and numerous cross-references to other statutes—for just a few examples—can make it very hard to wrap your head around what a statute really means. Here are some tips for interpreting a statute:

  • Read the statute three times and then read it again.
  • Pay close attention to all the "ands" and "ors." The use of "and" to end a series means that all elements of the series are included or required; an "or" at the end of a series means that only one of the elements must be included.
  • Assume all words and punctuation in the statute have meaning. For example, if a statute says you "may" do something, that means you are allowed to do it. But if it says you "shall" do something, it means you are required to do it.
  • It's tempting to skip words you don't quite understand. Don't do it. If you're confused about what a word means and can't get its meaning from the context, look up the definition of the word.
  • If the statute is one of a number you are studying, interpret it to be consistent with the other statutes if at all possible.
  • Interpret a statute so that it makes sense instead of leading to some absurd or improbable result.
  • Track down all cross-references to other statutes and sections and read those statutes and sections.

How to Make Sure a Law Is Up to Date

Once a statute becomes law, it seldom remains unchanged for very long. A future legislature might change (amend) or revoke (repeal) a statute for any number of reasons, so it's important to make sure you're reading the most up to date version of the law. If you're reading a statute on a state legislature's website, at the end of each statute you'll often find a list of dates and bills that changed the statute (sometimes labeled as "history"), and you should see a note that tells you the latest session of the legislature covered in the current version of the statutes. If you're reading the U.S. Code online, you'll see a link for "currency information" at the top of the page. Click on it to see the date through which the online code has been updated and to get more details on how to tell if an individual statute is current.

Because there's often a lag time between a bill's passage and its incorporation into the statutes, you can search the bills that have passed since the last time the statute was updated (these bills will usually be in a section of the state legislature's website called "session laws"). That way you'll be sure to capture any very recent legislation that has amended the statute you're interested in.

When Do I Need to Consult a Local Ordinance?

City and county laws, usually known as ordinances or municipal codes, apply to many aspects of our daily lives. Local ordinances govern matters including:

  • building and construction standards
  • rent control
  • noise and nuisance regulations
  • public health and safety
  • business licenses, and
  • parking.

If you are a city or county resident, a homeowner, a landlord, a tenant, or a small business owner, chances are there is a local law that affects you. When you are researching the laws that apply to your situation, you'll often need to check your local ordinances.

Keep in mind that local laws can never be weaker than federal or state law, and they are frequently stricter. For instance, San Francisco Building Code earthquake-safety standards are more stringent than those in the California Building Code.

Where Can I Find Local Ordinances?

Many cities and counties provide online access to local ordinances on their websites. Your best starting point will probably be an online search, using the name of your city or county and keywords such as "code" or "laws" or "ordinance." For example: "ABC city code" or "ABC county ordinances."

Another online resource is Municode.com, which has collected many city and county codes. Just choose your state and look for your locality.

You can also find county and municipal codes at your county or city clerk's office, or at a county law library or public library. Individual agencies like the county public health department or city building inspection department will usually provide copies of the rules they enforce.

The Role of Court Cases in Understanding Statutes

When most people talk about "the law," they tend to think only of statutes. But when disputes arise over the meaning of statutes, judges must interpret the statutes. Judges' interpretations of those statutes—called "opinions," "decisions," or "cases"—are as important to understanding what the law is as the words of the statutes themselves. So once you find a statute that seems to address your situation, you might need to take the next step and see what the courts have had to say about it.

There are two types of courts: federal and state. Usually, federal courts have the last word on interpreting federal statutes, and state courts have the last word on interpreting state statutes. When you read opinions, they're usually from a state or federal appellate court or supreme court.

Court decisions can come from criminal prosecutions or from civil lawsuits that have been filed by individuals, entities, or even the government. As a general rule, an individual first goes to trial court (the name will vary, depending on what state you are in; in federal court, it's called "district court"). The loser is allowed to challenge the trial court's decision in appellate court. Finally, the loser in appellate court might sometimes appeal again, to the highest court in the state or federal system, the supreme court. (Note that even this name can be different depending on the state—in New York, for example, the "Supreme Court" is a trial court.)

Like statutes, each case has its own citation. If you know the citation of the case you're looking for, this will help you locate it more easily. Generally, case citations begin with the volume number, the volume title, and the page number. For example, the citation 384 U.S. 436 can be found in volume 384 of the U.S. Reports on page 436.

Finding a U.S. Supreme Court Case

The United States Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the country, and the opinions of the majority of its judges (called "justices") are the final word on what federal law means. The Supreme Court can decide what a legislature meant when it wrote a law, or it can even overturn (revoke) a federal or state statute if it finds it to be unconstitutional.

You can view all of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decisions (going back at least five years) and get information on how to access earlier opinions on the Court's official website.

Finding Other Court Cases

Free online access to decisions from courts other than the U.S. Supreme Court was once nearly nonexistent. Today, though, there are a number of reliable websites you can use to search for court cases at no cost. Here are two options:

CourtListener. CourtListener provides online access to millions of decisions from more than 2,000 U.S. courts. It has sophisticated search capabilities, and each case includes "Authorities" and "Cited by" sections that link to related cases. To get started, you can type some keywords into the search box or click "Advanced Search" for many more options.

Google Scholar. Using Google Scholar, you can access any U.S. Court of Appeals decision, and most U.S. District Court and U.S. Bankruptcy Court decisions. Google Scholar also gives you access to many state court cases, including those issued at the appellate level and by the state's highest court. You can search Google Scholar by case name, citation, or keyword.

More Research Help

Nolo has compiled a list of some of our favorite legal websites to get you started with your research or help you dig deeper into a specific topic.