What is legal research, and how is it different from research in other disciplines?
Legal research is a search for statements of the law found in statutes, cases, or other primary sources that can be used to predict how a court would decide a dispute involving a specific fact situation. How exhaustive your research is predicated by your goal. For instance, if you are an attorney representing a case, your search will be far more comprehensive than if you are doing legal research in a particular discipline where your goal might be to discuss the impact and significance of a specific legal decision or statute.
If you are unfamiliar with legal terminology, Black’s Law Dictionary is a good source to use. It is available at the JFK Ref Desk KF156 .B53 2004, with earlier editions in the Reference collection and the book stacks. The Law Dictionary for Non-Lawyers is in our book stacks under KF156 .O7 .
Basic Introduction to Law Sources
If you are very unfamiliar with legal material, encyclopedias like American Jurisprudence, 2nd ed. JFK Ref. KF62.B3 A45 is a good place to start. If you are writing about a topic that you are not very familiar with, law reviews are often a good source to get you started.
What are Law Reviews?
Law reviews are periodical publications of law schools, bar associations, and commercial publishers, that contain articles providing in-depth analysis of legal issues or practical legal information. Law review articles tend to be well-documented with footnotes, providing the researcher quick access to citations of relevant cases and statutes and interpret and explain those sources as well.
Where can I find Law Reviews?
The database, Nexis Uni is a good resource. Click on Legal Research on the left side and select Law Reviews
Court Cases/Case Law
Nexis Uni -- click on Legal Research on the left hand side, then Get a Case if you know the citation or party names, or Federal Case Law to keyword search either Supreme Court cases, Federal Court of Appeals, or Federal District Court cases.
Definitions: There are three types of law which prevail at the federal, state, and local levels of government in the United States: Statutory Law, Case (or Judicial Law), and Regulations (or Administrative Law). Case law is the law of reported judicial opinions. Opinions are also known as reports or decisions. NOT all opinions published; trial court opinions are seldom published. A reported judicial opinion may include: majority or plurality opinion, concurrences or dissents, and a prefatory syllabus.
"Stare Decisis" (or precedent) is the basic concept of case law (common law) in which courts look to statutes and regulations and prior court decisions to formulate opinions. One method of determining prior law is to "Shepardize" a citation, using the Shepard's Citations volumes.
Shepard's federal citations. JFK REF KF105.2 .S42
How to use Shepard's citations : a detailed presentation of the scope and functions of Shepard's citation books with illustrative examples. JFK REF KF101.2 .S538
The legal citation for a case identifies the name of the court reporter in which the opinion is published, the volume number, and the page on which the opinion begins. Sometimes opinions are published in more than one reporter. These are called "parallel citations." Nexis Uni (a Library database) includes notations and page numbers of all the parallel citations for a case, including the Lexis citation. To identify a case in a research paper, use the name of the case and a legal citation taken from a print reporter. The Lexis citation may be included as a convenience.
Lexis-Academic Citation: 208 U.S. 412; 28 S. Ct. 324; 52 L. Ed. 551; 1908 U.S. LEXIS 1452
208 U.S. 412
208 [volume] U.S. [Abbr. of case reporter] 412 [page number]
1908 U.S. Lexis 1452
1908 [year] U.S. [Abbr. of court] Lexis 1452 [Lexis number] [parallel citation for the above case]
Cases argued and decided in the Supreme Court of the United States. Lawyer’s ed. JFK Ref KF101.U5 1 ser.
United States Supreme Court Reports. Lawyer’s ed. JFK Ref KF101.U5 2 ser.
Federal Law & Legislation
United States Code -- federal laws arranged by subject; available online at these sites
Public Laws -- each piece of legislation separately, rather than incorporated together
Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) -- federal agency rules & regulations, arranged by subject
Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1980: an Index to Opinions Arranged by Justice. Edited by Linda A. Blandford and Patricia Russell Evans. JFK REF KF101.6. B57 1983
Understanding Supreme Court Opinions. T. R. van Geel (1991). JFK Book Stacks KF8742 .V36 1991
Supreme Court of the United States.
LOCATION: Internet (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/opinions.aspx)
Official Web site of the Supreme Court. Provides slip opinions from 2003 to present in PDF format. Provides the complete bound volumes of United States Reports from 1991 (vol. 502) to present in PDF format. Bound volumes of United States Reports contain the fourth and final version of opinions as well as additional materials. The Web site includes a guide called "Information about Opinions."
U.S. Supreme Court Opinions: Cornell. (LII).
LOCATION: Internet (http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/)
Full text of Supreme Court opinions issued since 1990, with selected historic decisions. From Cornell's Legal Information Institute.
Supreme Court Decisions: GPO Access.
LOCATION: Internet (https://www.govinfo.gov/help/scd)
Full text of Supreme Court decisions, 1937-1975.
U.S. Supreme Court Opinions: Findlaw.
LOCATION: Internet (http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/supreme.html)
Full text of Supreme Court decisions from FindLaw. Includes decisions since 1893 (U.S. Supreme Court Decisions: U.S. Reports 150-, 1893- ). Browsable by year and U.S. Reports volume number and searchable by citation, case name, and words in the full text of the opinion.
Citing References from Nexis Uni
Two professional organizations, the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA), establish the documentation standards for most scholarly publishing in the U.S. Sample MLA and APA citations are shown below for some document types found in Nexis Uni.
The rules for citing online documents are as changeable as the online publishing environment itself. Find out which format is preferred by your instructor, then select the relevant items from the bibliographic data section found at the top of each html file. Typically this section will provide more information than you need in your citation.
Magazines & Newspapers
MLA lists the author's name, article title, magazine or newspaper title, publication data, publication medium (Online), name of the online service (Nexis Uni), and date of accessing the site.
Wildstrom, Stephen H. "A Big Boost for Net Privacy." Business Week Apr. 5, 1999: 23. Online. LexisNexis® Academic. 5 August 1999.
Liswood, Laura A. "Gender politics and the Oval Office; Why don't women run for president?" Baltimore Sun 31 March 1999: 23A. Online. Nexis Uni. 5 August 1999.
APA lists the author's name, date of publication, article title, magazine title, type of medium in brackets and Internet availability.
Wildstrom, Stephen H. (1999, April 5 ). A big boost for net privacy. Business Week, p. 23. [Online]. Available: http://0-www.lexisnexis.com.libsys.ewu.edu:80/universe.
Liswood, Laura A. (1999 March 31) Gender politics and the Oval Office; Why don't women run for president? Baltimore Sun, pp. 23A. [Online]. Available: http://0-www.lexisnexis.com.libsys.ewu.edu:80/universe.
Supreme Court Cases
MLA lists the case title, U.S. Reports citation, page numbers, docket number, name of the court, year of decision, Internet address, and date of accessing the site
Fullilove v. Klutznick. 448 U.S. 448. 448-554. No. 78-1007. US Supreme Court. 1980. Online. Nexis Uni. (5 August 1999).
APA lists the case title, U.S. Reports citation, year of decision, and Internet address.
Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U.S. 448 (1980) [Online] Available: http://0-www.lexisnexis.com.libsys.ewu.edu:80/universe.
MLA lists the title number, statute book of the U.S. Code, section, year, publication medium, name of computer service, and date of access.
42 US Code. Sec. 405. 1998. Online. Nexis Uni. (5 August 1998).
APA lists the title number, statute book of the U.S. Code, section, year, publication medium, name of computer service and date of access
42 US Code. Sec. 405. (1998). [Online]. Nexis Uni (5 August 1998).
(Lexis-Nexis Citing References Guide)--Always check your manual for the most current information.
Below are step-by-step guides for tracing federal legislation (from bill to law) and federal administrative regulations (agency rules from proposals to adopted regulations).
Many of these documents are available freely online in either Congress.gov, the official website for U.S. federal legislative information presented by the Library of Congress, or FDSYS (a portal to both legislative and executive branch documents) or both.
Step 1: Bill is introduced and referred to a Committee
Step 2: Committee holds Hearings, issues miscellaneous documents
Hearings – testimony before a committee
Committee Prints – other miscellaneous publications from the Committee
Step 3: Committee recommends passage
Congressional Reports – published findings of a Committee; includes what changes the new law would entail, budgetary considerations, etc.
Step 4: House or Senate debates and votes
Congressional Record -- transcript of what took place on House/Senate Floors, along with additional materials inserted by members of Congress
Step 5: If Bill passes, then sent to other Chamber and process repeats
Step 6: If House & Senate disagree, or if 2 similar Bills introduced. . .
Bill sent to Conference Committee and writes Conference Report; published both as House Reports (see Step 3) and in the Congressional Record (see Step 4)
Step 6: If both House and Senate agree. . . Bill passes and goes to President
Step 7: President signs Bill into Law
Public Laws -- each piece of legislation separately, rather than incorporated together
United States Code -- federal laws arranged by subject
Compilation of Presidential Documents -- published by the Office of the Federal Register (OFR), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), available in GPO FDsys, 1992-present.
Step 7: Or President vetoes Bill
Step 8: Overriding a veto Congressional Record
Transcript of floor debate and record of vote (see Step 4).
Administrative regulations are the more specific, nitty-gritty rules created by the agencies. These rules are just as binding as Congressional laws. The main source for administrative regulations is the Code of Federal Regulations or CFR. You can use Nexis Uni's version (click US Legal on the lefthand side) which is updated weekly, or an unoffical eCFR which is updated daily.
Step 1: Agency announces proposed regulations, with time period for public comments
Federal Register – daily (M-F) publication; announcements of proposed rules listed as “Notices” by agency
Step 2: New rule adopted & published
Federal Register (1994 to Present) -- Announcements of new regulations listed as “Rules” by agency
Step 3: Rules codified
Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) annual edition (1996 to Present) -- All federal regulations arranged by topic