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Finding U.S. case law and secondary legal literature

If you need help, please contact Chloe Riley, Acting Liaison Librarian for Criminology, Psychology & Philosophy at 778-782-3315 or car11@sfu.ca or Ask a librarian.

The American judicial system - a brief overview

The system of law in the United States shares a similar common law background with Canada. Both countries use case law and legislation as its primary sources of the law, and both countries have a constitution which outlines the organization of the law in relation to federal and state/provincial government. While Canada obviously does not follow US case law decisions, in some emerging areas, (e.g., copyright law), and areas of shared interest (e.g., securities law), US law may be researched to inform Canadian courts

Unlike Canada, where criminal law is a matter of (mostly) federal jurisdiction under the Criminal Code, in the United States, criminal law is primarily a matter of state jurisdiction, with a few exceptions, such as organized crime.

The United States has two main court systems: the Federal Court System and the State Court System: 

 

  US Federal Court System US State Court System
Subject Matter Covered
  • Federal law matters
  • Constitutional law (judicial reviews, also includes constitutional validity of state laws)
  • Federal court procedure (all levels)
  • Inter-state Matters (aka the "diversity jurisdiction", when parties are from different states & cases have a $75,000 minimum monetary value)
  • Small range of criminal matters covered by federal law, e.g., organized crime
  • Cases where a party is the Federal Government
  • Wide range of subject matters, also including constitutional law
  • Excludes a few legal areas that can only be heard in Federal Courts (e.g., bankruptcy cases)
Number of Levels 3 levels of court  Varies by state, but usually 3 levels of court
Highest Level of Court U.S. Supreme Court State Supreme Court
Next Highest Level of Court Circuit Courts of Appeal (13 circuits total; 12 circuits are geographically-based, the 13th circuit is subject-matter based) Court of Appeal
Lowest Levels of Court Trial Level (aka District Courts) (94 districts total)  

 

Note: the United States has two Supreme Courts - one for federal matters, one for state matters. In Canada, there is only one Supreme Court which has legal jurisdiction over both federal and provincial matters. 

The decisions of the highest levels of court (e.g., the U.S. Supreme Court) in each system are binding over lower level of courts in that category (e.g., Federal Courts).

The National Centre for State Courts links to US state court websites and provides snapshots of each state's court structure for instance, Texas.

U.S. legislation

 

Legislation overview: In the U.S., some powers are assigned to the Federal Government, some to the State Government, and other powers are shared. When researching legislation, keep possible jurisdiction of the legislation in mind.

There are three branches of the US Federal Government:

  1. legislative,
  2. judicial and
  3. executive.

The legislative assembly, called Congress, is bicameral, consisting of both a House of Representatives and Senate. Congress sessions are numbered.

How a Bill Becomes a Law outlines in simple terms the steps involved in creating US law.

 

State law

Use these listings of state-specific web pages as a starting point for researching individual state laws:

Federal law

THOMAS - contains the Congressional Record (the text of the debates of Congress) from 1989-forward, and the full text of US bills by bill number or title. Once a bill has been approved by the President, it becomes a Public Law, and is assigned an accompanying Public Law citation.

Sample Public Law Citation:  P.L. 112 - 18

P.L. = Public Law--the bill has been signed off by the president

112 = session of Congress

18 = the bill number, sequentially assigned

 

FDsys (created by the Government Printing Office) - contains enacted US federal legislation (aka Public Laws) from 1995-present. FDsys provides the official online version of Federal Laws.

United States Statutes at Large (via HeinOnline) [also on microfilm from 1776-1980]  - the official print version of enacted federal laws, published annually. Access the PDF version of the text online through HeinOnline --> "U.S. Statutes at Large". Once printed in the Statutes at Large, these public laws will have another citation assigned to them in addition to their original Public Law citations, although both Public Law and Statutes at Large citations will usually be listed alongside each other. 

Sample United States Statutes at Large Citation: 123 Stat. 19

123 = volume number of published Statute 

Stat. = official enacted law, printed in the US Statutes at Large

19 = page number of the Statute within the volume

 

United States Code - contains the official, enacted US Federal laws, but now reassembled and organized by subject matter, in a consolidation that happens every six years (although online versions are now updated more regularly). Also available via HeinOnline (1925-2006)--> Select "United States Code". And available via FDsys.

Sample US Code Citation: 7 U.S.C. § 2708(b) (2006)

7 = the US Code title number from the multi-title series

U.S.C. = United States Code

§ 2708(b) = section and sub-section number

2006 = the latest version of the Code consulted

 

TOPN: Table of Bills by Popular Name - Locate US Federal Legislation by its popular title (e.g., Haida Land Exchange Act), rather than its official citation. Use TOPN to discover a law's accompanying Public Law, Statutes at Large, and US Code citations (as applicable).

 

Note on Legislation Citation: When researching US legislation by citation you may have any combination of Public Law number, US Statutes at Large number, US Code number, or popular name of the legislation.

In general, a piece of legislation can have all four naming/citing conventions associated with it; each suggests a corresponding place to research.

 

Federal regulations

Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) Federal regulations organized by subject matter, similar to the United States Code. Accessible through several sources:

  • FDsys The official source for federal regulations
  • HeinOnline (1938 - present) --> select "Code of Federal Regulations"
  • Cornell LII A non-profit US law portal

US case law

Search case law databases directly if you know the specific cases you are looking for. If you are searching by topic -- e.g., recent lawsuits against U.S. fast food corporations -- it is highly recommended you begin your research with secondary legal literature.

Before searching for a specific case, it is helpful to know: 

  • What system(s) of court was the case tried in - State or Federal ?
  • What level(s) of court was the case tried in - Trial/District, Appeal/Circuit, or Supreme (state or federal)?
  • Who are the parties to the legal action?
  • What year was the case heard?

Google Scholar is robust for US case law. From the Advanced Search Screen, limit your search to a particular court. After your search, limit to legal documents to isolate case law. Google Scholar provides full text searching of all levels of both US court systems (Federal & State).

LexisNexis

  1. Select "US Legal" (or, use the "look up a legal case" quick search box)
  2. Select "Federal and State Cases" and appropriate limits
  3. Search by parties if you know the style of cause (e.g., Roe v Wade), or search under citation if you know the proper citation (e.g., 163 U.S. 537)

HeinOnline
Contains Federal Supreme Court Case Law from the official Supreme Court reporter, U.S. Reports, with coverage from 1754-2007. 

  1. Select U.S. Supreme Court Library  --> U.S. Reports --> browse by date
  2. For cases post-2007, view the United States Report Slip Opinions linked from the above page, the U.S. Supreme Court website, or Cornell LII

The McGill Guide (Canadian legal citation standard) may be used for guidance in citing US case law, or use the American Bluebook which is the main guide to legal citation in the United States. Cornell LII provides an abbreviated guide to the Bluebook.

Secondary U.S. legal literature

Definitions:
 
Secondary legal literature is writing about legal cases and issues.
 
Primary legal literature is the source of the law itself (e.g., case law and legislation).
 
Secondary literature points you to key cases on a topic, provides essential legal analysis, and may situate important case law in its legal context. Typical sources include legal treatises, legal encyclopedias, academic journal articles, legal trade articles, law reports, and even newspaper articles. Each have varying degrees of authority in court.

 

Academic and non-academic articles

Google Scholar indexes a large number of US legal journals - academic and trade. Search Google through the SFU Library to maximize your free access to journals.

LexisNexis - Contains academic law journals, legal dictionaries, and United States newspapers

  • Law journals
    • select US Legal  --> Law Reviews. Search hundreds of legal journals at once, or narrow first by general legal topic.
  • Legal dictionaries & reference
    • select US Legal  --> Legal Reference
  • Newspapers
    • select News or use the Search the News quick search box 

HeinOnline  - Contains academic law journals (over 1,620+ law and law-related journals in collection)

  • Law Journal Library
    • Select Law Journal Library.

Note: some titles in the above sources have limited access.  If the full text is not available in the sources listed above, search by journal title in the library catalogue to double-check all print and electronic journals owned by SFU Library, or search by article title in Library Search.

News sources list the library's access to US and international news sources, including The New York Times and The Economist (via Gale NewsVault). Newspapers are a source that can point to key legal cases for further research.

Books and treatises

Books can provide in-depth legal overviews and provide citations to important case law. Use the search terms law + [your topic] to find books, for instance, a search for law US copyright.

Alternatively, search the libraries of large US law schools, such as Harvard's Law Library, to find key legal treatises (or other books) and then request to borrow these treatises for free (as available) through SFU's interlibrary loan. Treatises on legal topics are often considered an authoritative source in the US judicial system.

Encyclopedias and dictionaries

Cornell LII's Wex is a free, collaboratively-authored legal encyclopedia. Most articles point you to key statutes and cases on a topic. 

For US legal definitions, try the dictionaries Black's Law Dictionary, Cornell LII's WEX Legal Lexicon, or Nolo's free legal dictionary.

Additional resources

The annual edition of the United States Government Manual (available via the database, HeinOnline and in print), contains:

  1. an authoritative version of the American Constitution (includes the Amendments/Bill of Rights),
  2. the Declaration of Independence,
  3. a current overview of all government departments and agencies, committees and boards, etc.

the U.S. Government Manual is an excellent starting point for a bird's eye view of the US government.

Cornell Legal Information Institute A non-profit portal for US legal research, containing a wide range of primary legal sources (e.g., law) and secondary sources (e.g., commentary).

Zimmerman's Research Guide Key resources and authoritative readings for a range of topics, from Accounting Principles to Zip Codes.