In legal research it is often necessary to refer to laws from another state other than your own or even to compare the laws of various states. There are a number of resources that can guide the research for unfamiliar laws. To begin with, it is helpful to refer to general multistate resources to help identify the statutes, codes, and case law necessary for the research.
Multistate Reference Sources
Materials for every state are available in law libraries and many on-line resources. The most up to date resources will be each states own government website and their published resources. Current statutes are also available from paid service providers such as Westlaw and LexisNexis.
The most comprehensive of these sources:
- Library of Congress - Guide to Law Online
- Richard A. Leiter's National Survey of State Laws (Gale, 2d ed., 1997);
- Lawyer's Desk Book (Prentice Hall, 10th ed., 1995, with 1997 supplement)
- The Book of the States (Council of State Governments, biennial)
- Georgetown Law Library - Research Guides, Treatise Finders & Tutorials
- Findlaw's Codes and Statute section
- Cornell University Law School
- The American Bar Association publishes a number of surveys, some covering specific topics.
Some surveys are prepared specifically to facilitate comparison of public policy issues between states. These include works such as:
- Ruth S. Musgrave and Mary Anne Stein's State Wildlife Laws Handbook (Government Institutes, 1993)
- For used car dealers, for example, N.A.D.A. Title and Registration Text Book (National Appraisal Guides, Inc., annual) summarizes motor vehicle laws and regulations.
- National Notary Association - State Law Summaries
- U.S. Department of Labor - Summary of the Major Laws of the Department of Labor
- Findlaw - State Law Summaries on many subjects.
Care should be taken when using any law summary as to how current it is and the bias for which it was prepared. Not all summaries, especially on-line summaries, are complete, accurate, or present an unbiased view.
Individual State Websites
State Internet information can be found either through comprehensive compilations or directly from general state homepages. The official addresses for state homepages vary, but generally searching for the state name and statutes or government will be sufficient to find the correct page.
Free Internet Websites
State statutes are available from several sources on the internet. Some of the most comprehensive are as follows:
- Library of Congress - Guide to Law Online
- Georgetown Law Library
- The Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School provides access to state legal materials.
- FindLaw provides extensive coverage of state and federal law. The codes and statutes are available from Findlaw's Codes section. A summary of state laws can be found on the Findlaw State Law section.
Certainly, state and federal law is available from Westlaw and LexisNexis® for any and all searches. For detailed information as to what is available and how to search their sites, they both have helpful customer service centers that will walk you through the research.
State and federal constitutions are available from a number of sources. All state constitutions being available from state government websites. The United States Constitution is also available from several websites. In addition, Findlaw has all constitutions available on its Codes and Statutes section.
State statutes are published and available in libraries. These publications are the official source of the statutes, but they are not the most useful versions. An annotated copy will have the statute, but also will have listings of cases that have interpreted the statute and often a history of the statute, with legislature commentary. Typically, annotated codes are only available from commercial publications, such as Westlaw. These would be available in large legal libraries or on-line from Westlaw or LexisNexis.
State statutes are also available in several electronic formats. Most state codes are now accessible on the Internet, although a few states are still dragging their feet. Like the Internet versions of the U.S. Code, however, these free versions generally do not include important editorial additions such as notes of court decisions. Also, care must be taken in using electronic versions as they may not be current. Old copies of laws live forever on the internet.
State laws, like federal laws, are first published as slip laws and in chronological volumes of session laws. Slip laws are useful to understand the history of the law and how it has changed. Federal slip laws are available from the Libray of Congress, and from major law libraries. Some states published slip laws or session laws and they are available on their websites. They may also be available from law libraries in the state in question. Almost every state now provides access to recent legislation on its homepage. The simplest way to find this material is an internet search of the state's court or legislature website. The commercial databases also provide comprehensive access to recent state session laws.
States do not necessary create their own set of laws. They borrow or adopt uniform laws from institutions like the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform Laws and the American Law Institute. These institutions create Uniform or Model laws on various subjects. States base their statutes on the same model which can simplify interstate commerce and ease conflicts in determining which state's laws apply in case of disputes. The NCC of Uniform Laws has drafted over 200 uniform laws, such as the Uniform Probate Code, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act, and the Uniform Commercial Code. These uniform laws do not have the force of law until they are enacted by a state legislature. The states can and do modify the uniform laws, but many states incorporate them word for word so as to create uniformity between the states.
At the state level, current bills and reports on their status are readily available through commercial databases and official Web sites. Publications that would be useful in interpreting enacted legislation, however, can be difficult to obtain. Often the best sources of interpretation can be from case law or from law review articles.
Guides and Directories
Most states publish introductory guides to the legislative process, including charts showing how bills become laws. Many of these guides are also available on state legislature Web sites. Some leading sources are:
- Each state's legislative website;
- Lynn Hellebust's State Legislative Sourcebook: A Resource Guide to Legislative Information in the Fifty States (Government Research Service, annual);
- Encyclopedia of the American Legislative System (Scribner, 3 vols., 1994), edited by Joel H. Silbey;
- William J. Keefe and Morris S. Ogul's The American Legislative Process: Congress and the States (Prentice Hall, 9th ed., 1997;)
- Chapter 3 of The Book of the States (Council of State Governments, biennial);
- State Yellow Book;
- CSG State Directory, Directory I: Elective Officials includes individual legislators and Directory II: Legislative Leadership, Committees and Staff ; and
- Handbook of State Legislative Leaders (State Legislative Leaders Foundation, annual).
Information on pending bills in state legislatures is available through a number of electronic sources. Because access to up-to-date information in this area is essential, print resources are generally unsatisfactory and Internet dissemination has dramatically changed research processes.
Almost every state now has a website providing the text of bills and bill tracking information, similar to PACER for the federal level, and even those without strong Internet sites provide bill status information by telephone. Each state has a legislature website that will provide listings of pending legislation and typically a history of the bill.
With the increase in the use of the internet for publication, information on current state legislation has blossomed. However, the search for documents useful information in interpreting existing statutes, is often not available. States typically do not publish the same sort of congressional record that the federal government does.
One can perform state legislative history research, but the information available will be different on a state by state basis. For instance, Kentucky provides a guide for how to conduct legislative history; Wyoming has resources for conducting the research, even though there is no transcript of floor debates; and other states such as New York have more resources for research. To find information for the state that you are interested in, put in the name of the state followed by legislative history to find a guide to conducting the research.
Each state, of course, has an executive branch. The administrative departments and agencies of these executive branch produce regulations, issue opinions, and provide guidelines. Unfortunately, the publication of these administrative materials is not as thorough or regular as it is on the federal level.
While almost every state now has an administrative code, few are as organized and accessible as the CFR. Some are simply compilations of material supplied by individual agencies. Some contain regulations of only a limited number of state agencies. A few do not even have general subject indexes. Even the best are generally published in loose-leaf format and require regular updating.
Most, if not all, of these administrave codes are available on the state web pages. A search of the state name along with the term "administrative code" should take you to the state government site where the code is available.
Other Agency Materials
Codified and published regulations are not the only documentation from state administrative agencies. However, some of this information has not been published or readily avialable to the public in libraries or on-line. It may be necessary to use a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain such information.
Also, the information sought might be easily available, but only from the department or agency that created it. It may be necessary to go to each state agency department or commission, such as the Sanitation Department or Labor Department, to obtain information about that agency.
Many state administrative agencies in areas such as banking, insurance, public utilities, taxation, and workers' compensation issue opinions or decisions. Some of these administrative decisions are available on the Internet. Go to the website for the agency that you are interested in and see if the decisions have been published. For instance, the IRS has Actions on Decisions on its website and the California Department of Industrial Relations has Opinion Letters available on its website.
Many, but not all, governors have the power to issue executive orders. In most instances, these orders are published in the state registers, but in a few states they may only be available as individual documents. More and more of these executive orders are available on the internet. For instance, New Jersey publishes its executive orders for each governor. Certainly, executive orders for the current governor are available on-line, but older orders may only be available from the state libraries.
Attorney General Opinions
State attorneys general have a wide range of authority tht covers areas, such as law enforcement and consumer protection. One of the functions of the attorney general is to offer advisory opinions. These opinions are not legally binding, but carry considerable weight with the courts. Each state has a state attorney general website and these advisory opinions are often available on the internet.
States have industry standards for building, fire protection, and other common and routine functions. These rules or codes, such as the International Building Code, from the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), may have the force of law even if they are not published by a government agency. These codes are available in some libraries, and the agencies responsible for their enforcement should have copies, but otherwise they can be hard to find. Typically, these codes are available for purchase from the the ICBO or other services and that may be the only way to obtain a copy.
Counties and Cities
Local laws govern a wide range of important issues, from day-to-day matters such as parking regulations and animal control to long-range concerns such as zoning and subdivision. Local laws and ordinances can be among the most difficult primary legal sources to obtain. Many are published and accessible at libraries within the jurisdiction, but few of these collections are available beyond the city or county's borders. Some are available on the Internet, so it is always recommended to check the city or county website to see if they are available. The leading publisher for municipal codes is Municipal Code Corporation. Their information is available through a subscription service.
Researching state and federal law that is unfamiliar can be a daunting task, but one that has been made easier by use of the internet. However, not all information can be found this way, so it is important to look to and search law libraries for printed works, especially if looking for historical information. Further, sometimes the only way to obtain the necessary information is to go to the source directly and have them send it to you. With perseverance, your legal research issues can be tackled and probably more easily than you imagine.