- Begin U.S. legal research by finding commentary in secondary sources
- Find federal and state case law
- Find authorised case reports for the state courts (known as official reports)
- Interpret case citations
- Check for subsequent consideration (updating your cases)
- Find federal legislation
- Find federal regulations
- Find federal Congressional material
- Find state legislation and regulations
- Find judicial consideration of legislation
- Find equivalent legislation
- Free databases of U.S. legislation and case law
- Free databases of Federal Rules
All databases referred to below are available from the Law Library Research Databases
Important Note: In order to activate any of the Westlaw hyperlinks below, you must already be logged into Westlaw via the Law Library Research Databases page
Begin U.S. legal research by finding commentary in secondary sources
Note: refer to the Library Research Guide Legal Research: Secondary Sources for more detailed information on using secondary sources.
Consult secondary sources such as texts, (these books are also known as treatises or monographs), legal encyclopedias and periodical articles covering the aspects of U.S. law that you need to research. This approach will help you:
• become familiar with the area of law,
• determine whether you need to research federal and or state law, and
• become used to the U.S. legal terminology, which may be different to Australian legal terminology. You must use the relevant legal terminology to do the most effective online searching.
Discover citations to the leading primary sources of law including cases, legislation and administrative regulations. This saves time in the research process and is why it is the recommended starting point.
1. Legal Dictionaries
a) To check judicial definitions and application of legal words, phrases and maxims, use:
Black's Law Dictionary 8th ed. (Westlaw database ID: BLACKS)*
Black's Law Dictionary 9th ed. UniM Law High Use K 126 L3 BLAC
Ballentine's Law Dictionary 3rd ed. (LexisNexis:Academic)
Legal Dictionaries, combined (LexisNexis) - four sources combined and searchable as one ie: Ballentine's Law Dictionary, The Law Dictionary, Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, and Modern Dictionary for the Legal Profession.
b) Words & Phrases (Westlaw) - Words & Phrases contains judicial definitions, from both State and Federal courts, from both published and unpublished opinions.
2. Legal Encyclopedias
Legal encyclopedias are useful as an introduction to an area of law and as case finding tools.
Tip: avoid citing legal encyclopedias. In preference, cite the more scholarly sources of legal commentary such as texts and legal periodical articles by legal scholars.
The two U.S. national legal encyclopedias, American Jurisprudence 2d ( Am. Jur ) and Corpus Juris Secundum ( C.J.S. ) provide general overviews of U.S. law.
Finding Books Using the Library Catalogue
To find a text discussing U.S. law, search the Library Catalogue using a keyword or subject search for your legal topic and “ United States ”. If you find a relevant book, click on the subject headings assigned to it to find similar titles.
Finding Books Using Bibliographies
- Searching the Law (3 rd ed. 2005) UniM Law High Use KL 155 G1 BAND
Describes legal topics and lists of relevant journal and book titles.
- Kendall F. Svengalis, The Legal Information Buyer's Guide & Reference Manual (2009). UniM Law High Use KM 107 LEGA 2009
Includes annotated lists of significant treatises/texts covering major legal subjects.
- Bryan M. Carson, Finding the Law: Legal research for librarians and paralegals (2011). UniM Law KL 155 G1 CARS
4. Periodical Articles
Use indexes such as:
Try full text databases of U.S. law review and other legal periodical articles such as:
- Law reviews, CLE, Legal journals and periodicals combined (Lexis.com> under the Secondary Legal heading on the front page>link to Law Reviews & Journals > Law Reviews, CLE, Legal Journals & Periodicals, Combined )
- Westlaw (Database ID: TP-ALL)*
- Hein Online
5. Media reports on U.S. legal issues
U.S Newspapers and Wires (LexisNexis Academic> Search tab> News tab>the source default is U.S. Newspapers & Wires)
Legal News (Lexis.com> under the Secondary Legal heading on the front page>link to Legal News )
Legal Newspapers (Westlaw database ID: LEGALNP)*
Find federal and state case law
For general information about the three tiered U.S. federal court system, (United States Supreme Court, U.S. Courts of Appeal and U.S. District Courts) see the U.S. Court system website.
For a map that sets out the jurisdictions of the federal intermediate appellate court, the U.S. Court of Appeals and the federal trial courts known as the Federal District Courts, see here.
Which are the authorised (official) reports for U.S. Federal Courts?
All cases of the United States Supreme Court are reported in the U.S. Reports, the only official or authorised case reporter of the hgihest court in the United States.
Where can I find U.S. Federal case law?
United States Supreme Court cases in the U.S. Reports.
- The website of the Supreme Court of the United States provides opinions from 2006 - present.
- Hein Online - Hein's U.S. Supreme Court Library provides pdf copies of all cases from U.S. Reports.
- Supreme Court Reporter (Westlaw database ID:SCT)
- Supreme Court Cases, Lawyer's Edition (Lexis.com>search>by source>legal>cases - U.S.>view more sources>U.S. Supreme Court Cases, Lawyer's Edition
Federal Appellate Court Decisions
There is no designated authorised/official reporter for the eleven U.S. Courts of Appeal. Cases selected for publication appear in the Federal Reporter and some cases may also appear in topical case reporters.
- Federal Reporter (now up to 3rd series) in print - UniM Law REP
- U.S. Courts of Appeals Cases Combined (Lexis.com>search>by source>legal>cases - U.S. > view more sources>U.S. Courts of Appeals Cases Combined)
- U.S. Courts of Appeals Cases (Westlaw database ID: CTA)
Federal Trial Court Decisions
There is no designated authorised/official reporter for cases from U.S. District Courts. Cases selected for publication appear in the Federal Supplement and some reported cases may also appear in topical case reporters.
Federal Supplement (now up to 2d series)(in print - level 4 UniM Law REP)
U.S. District Court Cases, Combined (Lexis.com>select the Cases - U.S. link on the front page>select U.S. District Court Cases, Combined)
U.S District Court Reported Cases (Westlaw ID: DCTR)
Consult the T.1 section of the Bluebook: A Uniform Book of Legal Citation, for a list of topical reporters that cover federal areas of law such as bankruptcy and military justice.
Unreported Judgments from U.S. Federal Courts
Decsions that are not designated by the federal courts for publication in print reporters are known as unpublished decisions and are non-precedential. Unreported judgments are often available via court web sites and online research services including LexisNexis and Westlaw. Tip: Try to find the best reported cases from the highest federal court instead of relying on unreported judgments.
Where can I find U.S. state case law?
All decisions of each state's court of last resort, usually known as the Supreme Court, are published. State trial court decisions are usually not published.
For charts showing the court structure and names of the courts in each state, see the National Center for State Courts (NSCS) site.
Some states publish all state intermediate appellate court opinions and others publish only selected opinions. West's National Reporter system's regional reporters dominate the print publication of state cases, and these cases can also be found in pdf format on Westlaw.
To find the web site of each state judiciary and the names of the courts refer to T.1 of The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation (latest edition in the High Use Collection at K 114 BLUE)
Cases from all fifty U.S. states can be found on LexisNexis and Westlaw. Begin by searching the database covering state and federal cases from your selected state. This research strategy finds federal cases that have interpreted your state's laws in addition to cases from your state's court system.
eg. Ohio (OH Federal & State Cases, Combined)
Lexis.com>select Ohio under the States Legal - U.S. heading on the front page>select OH Federal & State Cases, Combined
Find authorised case reports for the state courts (known as official reports)
Which are the authorised (official) reports for the state courts in the fifty states?
To find the names of official and unofficial case reporters, and whether public domain citation format has been adopted in a state, refer to T.1 of The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation (the 18th edition is in the High Use Collection at K 114 BLUE) See here for updates to the 19th edition.
Interpret case citations
Check for subsequent consideration (updating your cases)
Find the case on LexisNexis and use the Shepards feature; or
Find the case on Westlaw and use the KeyCite feature.
Both Shepards and KeyCite help you to determine if your case is still good law by providing references to later citing cases and statutes that interpret and may supersede your case. These citators also provide references to commentary/secondary sources that have cited your case.
Note the citator symbol assigned to your case. (e.g. a red flag on Westlaw's KeyCite means that your case is “No longer good for at least one point of law” and on LexisNexis, a red stop sign means “subsequent appellate history contains negative analysis.” Make sure you understand the meaning of the citator symbols and that you read the relevant later citing sources to determine how they apply to your legal research. Shepards and KeyCite results for the same case can vary.
For Australian and other foreign consideration of U.S. cases, use:
LawCite (a free citator on CommonLII)
American Law Reports Annotations (ALR)
The A.L.R. series reprints selected federal and state cases in the relevant state or federal series because they cover a new or important development in an area of law. For each case reprinted, there is an accompanying “annotation”, which is written by A.L.R. editors. The annotations are valuable because they are detailed research articles that provide many citations to relevant primary and secondary sources.
Links to A.L.R. annotations appear in the list of “Related Content” that accompanies searches of U.S. case law in LexisNexis.com
Links to A.L.R. annotations appear in the “Results Plus” lists that accompany searches of U.S. case databases in Westlaw. You can also search Westlaw's separate databases of A.L.R. annotations arranged by subject.
Find federal legislation
How do I find U.S. federal legislation?
Public Laws/Session Laws
The U.S. Congress passes into law federal statutes also known as session laws, which are officially published in the Statutes at Large . Each public law is assigned a PL number, which indicates the session of Congress in which the law was passed and a chronological number. If you need to look at a statute at the time it was passed, find the relevant public law or session law, which is often known by its popular name.
To find a federal statute by its popular name, use:
- the United State Code, Office of the Law Revision Council Popular Name Tool
- Popular Names of Acts in the U.S Code from Cornell University 's Law School Legal Information Institute (LII)
United States Statutes at Large
To find federal public laws or session laws as passed, use:
- GPO (Government Printing Office)
104 th Congress -
(digitally signed and certified laws from 110 th Congress - ) Access to the GPO is now via FDsys. FDsys is now GPO's official system of record for online Government information. Click here to access a guide to searching FDsys - a basic search tutorial.
- Hein Online (Available via the Law Library Research Databases page)
U.S. Statutes at Large
(1st Congress - ) pdf format
- Thomas (The Library of Congress)
111th Congress (2009–2010)
(Public Laws from 1st Congress to be added during 2010)
- Public Laws on Lexis.com
(Lexis.com>Federal Legal – U.S. > USCS - United States Code Service: Code, Const, Rules, Conventions & Public Laws )
- Public Laws on Westlaw (Westlaw database ID: USCANN PL, 1973 - )
Federal Statutes from the Statutes at Large are reorganised by 51 subjects or titles into an official code called the U.S Code , which is republished in it's entirety every six years . The most recent edition of the U.S. Code is 2006. While the U.S.C. should be cited whenever possible, it is not current and it lacks the annotations that the commercially produced annotated codes offer.
To find federal laws, legal researchers routinely use the annotated federal codes, ( U.S.C.A . and U.S.C.S .) which include references to cases that have interpreted, construed or applied particular code sections, lists of any amendments to each section and references to relevant regulations and secondary sources. KeyCite updating is available for U.S.C.A. and Shepards updating is available for U.S.C.S. on LexisNexis.
- U.S. House of Representatives' Office of Law Revision Counsel
To update statute sections from the most recent edition of the U.S. Code consult the classification tables, which provides U.S. Code sections for recently enacted federal public laws.
- Cornell Law School 's Legal Information Institute (LII) - the easiest to use free version of the U.S. Code.
- GPO access via FDsys
- Hein Online - United States Code (available in pdf)
- United States Code Annotated on LexisNexis
(Lexis.com> Federal Legal – U.S. from front page> USCS - United States Code Service: Code, Const, Rules, Conventions & Public Laws )
- United States Code Annotated on Westlaw ( Westlaw database identifier: USCA)*
Find federal regulations
To find out more about executive and administrative agencies that promulgate regulations to implement federal statutes, see:
- GPO via FDsys - U.S Government Manual
New and proposed federal administrative regulations are published daily in chronological order in the Federal Register and are later codified by subject in the Code of Federal Regulations ( C.F.R .). The CFR comprises fifty titles or broad subject area covering areas that are regulated by the U.S. federal government. Begin your research in the C.F.R. , which is updated annually on a rolling, quarterly schedule.
- Hein Online Federal Register Library ( pdf)
- Federal Register on Lexis.com (Lexis.com> FR - Federal Register on front page)
- Federal Register on Westlaw (Westlaw database identifier: FR-ALL)*
Code of Federal Regulations
- GPO via FDsys
- Hein Online Federal Code of Regulations (pdf) Volume 1, 1938 -
- Code of Regulations on LexisNexis
(Lexis.com> CFR – Code of Federal Regulations on front page)
- Code of Regulations on Westlaw (Westlaw database identifier: CFR)*
- GPO's Federal Digital System (FDsys)
- E-CFR – a daily edition of the C.F.R. that incorporates changes reflected in the C.F.R., however the E-CFR is not an official edition of the C.F.R.
Find federal Congressional material
How do I Find U.S. Federal Congressional Material?
If you need to track the status of a federal bill, determine the legislative intent or to better understand the meaning of a statute, you need to undertake legislative history research. Congressional documents for a legislative history of a statute may include different versions of a bill, committee hearings, reports and prints, debates and presidential signing statements. Committee reports generally provide the most authoritative information about congressional intent.
- GPO via FDsys
- Thomas (The Library of Congress)
- Legislative Histories on Lexis.com
Short summaries and lists of documents comprising the legislative histories of various public laws from the 91 st Congress, 2d session, 1970
(Lexis.com> Federal Legal – U.S. from front page> Find Statutes, Regulations, Administrative Materials & Court Rules >Legislative History Materials> US – CIS Legislative Histories
- United States Congressional & Administrative News (U.S.C.C.A.N.) on Westlaw
Includes public laws from 1973 and important parts of committee reports from 1948
(Westlaw database identifier: USCCAN)*
- For detailed explanations of federal legislative history documents and research strategies, consult:
Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C. Legislative Source Book
- Congressional documents on Hein Online
- The Congressional Record is the official record of the proceedings and debates of the U.S. Congress and is available from Congress.Gov from 107th Congress (2001-2003) to the present.
Find state legislation and regulations
Statutes are also passed by each of the fifty state legislatures. The name of the session laws for each state and the chronological numbering system for state statutes as they are passed into law varies by state.
Consult the T.1 section of The Bluebook: A Uniform Book of Legal Citation (latest edition in the High Use Collection at K 114 BLUE) to find the names of the session laws, code and annotated code/s for each state and which, if any, have been designated as official. T.1 also indicates the names of each state's administrative law titles, which are usually known as codes and registers.
Unannotated codes are often freely available from each state legislature's website. However the annotated codes are much more useful. In addition to the code sections, annotated codes provide references including those to related statutes sections, constitutional provisions, regulations, cases, commentary and secondary sources. Annotated codes are usually prepared by commercial publishers and are available via LexisNexis or Westlaw for most states.
To find sources of free state legislative information on the web, see for example:
Research Guides for U.S. Jurisdictions (Georgetown Law Library)
Find judicial consideration of legislation
Find equivalent legislation
Free databases of U.S. legislation and case law
The GPO via FDsys has a wealth of important information including Titles 1-50 of the United States Code, public laws, the Congressional Record and the Federal Register. This is the official Government publisher so it should be used when an authentic version is sought.
Cornell Legal Information Institute (Cornell LII) - This site has the opinions of the United States Supreme Court handed down since 1992, together with over 600 historically important earlier decisions, over a decade of opinions of the New York Court of Appeals, and the full United States Code. It also publishes important secondary sources.
Google Scholar - Google Scholar contains opinions of U.S state appellate and supreme court cases since 1950, U.S. federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy courts since 1923 and the U.S. Supreme Court cases since 1791. In addition to case law, Google Scholar provides links to secondary sources, such as law reviews and journals. To search, go to Google Scholar and click on the "Legal opinions and journals" radio button before running a search. The pagination of cases match that of the official reporter but cases from Google Scholar are not the official version.
(Information in this section above has been summarised from Alison Shea's article entitled 'No-Cost and Low-Cost U.S. Legal Research' in Legal Information Management, 11 (2011), pp. 241-246).
Free Law Reporter - An electronic case reporter that freely publishes nearly every recent appellate and supreme court opinion, from state to federal U.S courts.
Georgetown Law Library has developed a website of free and low cost legal research. The first part of the guide gives an overview and links to different types of free material.
The Public Library of Law - this is a continuously updated database covering federal laws and the laws of all 50 states. Separate portals include case law, statutes, regulations, court rules, constitutions, and legal forms. The legal forms are not free.
GovTrack - This tool track activities in the U.S.Congress. It provides access to the status of U.S. federal legislation, voting records for the Senate and House of Representatives, information on Members of Congress, district maps, as well as congressional committees and the Congressional Record.
Justia - freely available, this database offers federal and state legal material, including both case law and statutes.
Internet and Online Sources of U.S. Legislative and Regulatory Information - this ten page publication briefly describes and then sets out in a comparison table more than 60 internet and online sources for U.S. federal and state legislative and regulatory information.
Free databases of Federal Rules
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure - the complete rules as of December 1, 2012, all notes of the Advisory Committee following each rule, internal links to rules referenced with the rules and external links to the LII website's version of the US Code.
Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure - the complete rules as of December 1, 2012, all notes of the Advisory Committee following each rule, internal links to rules referenced with the rules and external links to the LII website's version of the US Code.
Federal Rules of Evidence - the complete rules as of December 1, 2012, all notes of the Advisory Committee following each rule, internal links to rules referenced with the rules and external links to the LII website's version of the US Code.