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Overview of Legal Research

This research guide contains a brief introduction to legal materials and the process that establishes societal law.

"Law" and its Components
Categories of Legal Information
Legal Citation
The Legal Process
Putting It All Together--an Example

"Law" and Its Components

The "law" is defined as a body of rules of societal conduct that is created and enforced by an authority, e.g., an established government. In the United States it is a mosaic of federal and state constitutions, legislation enacted by federal and state governments, treaties, federal and state court decisions, administrative agency regulations, executive orders and local ordinances. This mosaic can be grouped into the following three major components:

law mosaic
    1. Statutory Law -- federal and state statutes and constitutions as passed by legislative bodies.
    2. Case Law -- decisions of courts and judicial bodies.

      The United States uses a "common law" system that operates under the doctrine of "precedent" or stare decisis (Latin for "let the decision stand"). This means means that, as judges issue opinions in higher level courts, they establish precedent that guides the rulings of other judges in similar cases and jurisdictions. Over time these legal opinions establish, refine and clarify societal law. This creates an element of societal stability by treating similiar facts in the same way. Legal opinion may respond over time to changing societal mores or technological developments, e.g., the overruling of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans. (1954) regarding racial segregation.

    3. Administrative Law -- regulations issued by governmental agencies.

      Agencies are sometimes given in statutory law the regulatory authority to create more detailed rules that define responsibilities and permissible actions in their areas of societal responsibility. (Here is a list of federal departments and agencies with regulatory responsibilities. The Federal Regulatory Directory (ref KF 5408 A15 F4) describes federal regulatory agencies and the specific statutory laws under which they derive their regulatory responsibilities. )

Categories of Legal Information

Similiar to other scholarly areas legal materials can be divided into those that 1) contain original decisions and actions, 2) those that describe, explain or analyze them; and 3) tools to help identify them.

Primary Sources - publications which contain the original decisions and actions of legislative, judicial, and administrative bodies. See Statutory, Case and Administrative Law: Federal & California for those available through the HSU Library.

Secondary Sources - publications that describe, explain, or analyze the law. These publications are typically prepared by scholars, lawyers, and other commentators, and have no official legal authority. Examples are legal practice manuals, treatises, encyclopedias, commentaries, and law review articles. Legal Reference Resources and Finding Tools lists important general sources available through the HSU Library. The main Legal Research Guide page links to guides listing sources in more specialized fields.

Finding Tools - these facilitate access to primary and secondary sources of law and include literature databases, digests, and citators. See Legal Reference Resources and Finding Tools

When starting legal research it is best to begin with secondary sources (legal practice manuals, treatises, encyclopedias, commentaries, and law review articles) that provide a broader overview on a topic and cite key laws, cases and regulations. See Legal Reference Resources and Finding Tools for databases that index secondary sources.

Legal Citation--Examples of Key Primary Sources

Statutes, regulations, and court cases are extensively cited in both primary and secondary legal sources. Legal citation uses a standardized set of abbreviations and formatting that allows one to reference them with precision so that others can find and use them. Legal Citation and Abbreviations lists a number of useful guides and dictionaries to legal citation. Following are examples of legal citations to key federal and California legal sources. (Note: the links in the following section go to the descriptions of these primary legal resources in Statutory, Case and Administrative Law: Federal & California)

Statutory Law
Pub. L. 106-67 = the 67th public law passed by the 106th Congress of the United States
16 Stat. 217 = volume 16 of the US Statutes at Large, page 217
20 U.S.C. 1681 = title 20 of the United States Code, section 1681
Cal. Stat., 1995, ch. 818 = Statutes of California for 1995, chapter 818
(i.e., the 818th law passed in 1995)
Cal. Pub. Res. Code 342 = California Public Resources Code, section 342
Case Law
416 U.S. 312 = volume 416 of U.S. Reports, page 312
67 C.2nd 350 = Volume 67 of California Supreme Court Reports, Second Series, page 350
Administrative Law
42 F.R. 32514 = volume 42 of the Federal Register, page 32514
43 C.F.R. 3590 = title 43 of the Code of Federal Regulations, part 3590
22 C.C.R. 66261 = title 22 of the California Code of Regulations, section 66261

The Legal Process

The following sources provide a basic introduction to the legislative, judicial and regulatory process:

Legislative Process
  • Federal
    • GOVERNMENT 101: How a Bill Becomes Law (Project Vote Smart) Four page summary of the process including a glossary of key terms.
    • How Our Laws are Made (Sullivan--Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives) 2007. Comprehensive introduction to the federal legislative process.
    • How Federal Laws are Made (Want Publishing) 1984 (ref KF 4945 Z9 H68 1984)
    • How Laws are Made (Ben's Guide to U.S. Government) Simple introduction to the federal legislative process.
  • California
    • California's Legislature (California State Legislature) Biennial (print copy available in CalDocs L525 H5b) Topics include California's historical background, the California Constitution, elections, the executive branch (governor, lieutenant governor, and other state officers), the judicial branch, legislative sessions, legislative districts, and the legislative process.
    • Glossary of Legislative Terms (California State Legislature)
    • How a Bill Becomes a Law (flowchart) and Overview of Legislative Process (text) (Legislative Council of California) Explanation of the legislative process in California.
    • Lifecycle of a Bill (California State Capitol Museum) Includes interactive chart.
    • The Legislative Process: a Citizen's Guide to Participation (Governor's Office of Planning and Research) Provides advice on how the California legislative process works; how to appropriately lobby members of the Legislature on issues and bills, both in person and through writing and telephone; how to read actual bill text; and the specific mechanics of how a bill goes from concept to law.

Judicial Process

Regulatory Process


Statutory Law

Number of Congressional bills introduced each Congress (two year cycle):
Statistical Abstract of the U.S. and Résumé of Congressional Activity
Number of Congressional bills enacted each Congress:
Statistical Abstract of the U.S. and Résumé of Congressional Activity

Case Law

Number of annual petitions filed with U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari (judicial review):
Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics
Number of annual U.S. Supreme Court opinions:
Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics

Administrative Law

Number of Final Rules annually in Federal Register:
Ten Thousand Commandments
Number of annual pages in Federal Register:
Federal Register Facts
Number of pages in Code of Federal Regulations:
Federal Register Facts

Putting It All Together--An Example

  What is the body of law on the protection of wild horses and burros?
Statutory Law

A federal statute with the popular name Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed in 1971 by the 92nd Congress as Pub. L. 92-195. The statute was officially published in Statutes at Large as 85 Stat. 649 and it was codified, along with subsequent amendments to the original 1971 act, in the United States Code as 16 U.S.C. 1331-1340.

Secondary sources consulted to find this information:
Legislative History

Case Law

There are two major federal court cases that have ruled on the legality of the statute. In Kleppe v. New Mexico (published in United States Reports as 426 U.S. 529) the United States Supreme Court in 1976 ruled that the act is a valid exercise of Congress's power under the Property Clause of the Constitution. In Mountain States Legal Foundation v. Hodel (published in Federal Reporter, Second Series as 799 F. 2nd 1423) the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1986 upheld the statute against claims that it resulted in a taking of private property by protecting wild horses grazing on private lands.

Secondary sources consulted to find this information:

Administrative Law

Federal administrative regulations relating to wild horse and burro protection and management appear in the Code of Federal Regulations in two parts since the code is organized by agency and both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management are the responsible agencies. Regulations appear in 43 C.F.R. 4700 and in 36 C.F.R 222

Sources consulted to find this information: