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Public Policy: Legal Research & US Gov Sources

Searching United States Law

Finding Federal Statutes

Slip laws are the first publication of a newly enacted law, and can be found on the Public Laws page within days of becoming law.

At the end of a congressional session, slip laws are bound in chronological order to create a collection of Session Laws, which can be accessed through the United States Statutes at Large.

General and permanent statutes are then added to the United States Code (U.S.C.), which is freely available online through multiple sources.

We subscribe to the United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.) through Westlaw, which is an unofficial code but contains useful annotations and research notes that direct you to other relevant statutes, case law, regulations, and secondary sources.


Finding State Statutes

The federal resources above won't contain information on state laws. Because each state's situation, procedures, and terminology might vary, you might have more luck performing a Google site search for guidance specific to that state.

For example: STATE NAME legal research


Conducting Legislative Histories

Legislative histories attempt to track the materials produced throughout the process of introducing and debating a piece of legislation.

For federal legislative history research, here are examples of documents and sources that may be useful:

Finding Court Decisions

  • Westlaw allows you to perform targeted searches by limiting your results to a particular district court or federal circuit, and it gives you access to the KeyCite system, which finds connections to other cases, statutes, and regulations and even summarizes the nature of the treatment presented in the rest of the law.
  • Google Scholar is very good at finding original court decisions if you enter a citation you found elsewhere.
  • Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) searches a government-maintained index of district, bankruptcy, and appellate court decisions.


Sources for Background Research

Agencies that typically (although not always) are part of the executive branch can have the authority to create rules and regulations.

Regulations are part of the larger category of administrative law, which also includes executive orders and administrative decisions.


Finding Federal Regulations

The Federal Register gets updated every weekday and contains all newly proposed regulations as well as revised regulations that were already made available for public comments. This can be a good resource for finding new regulations or a collection of chronologically ordered regulations.

The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) receives official updates about once a year. Unlike the Federal Register, the CFR is organized by subject, making it easier to browse and locate regulations on a similar topic regardless of when they were created.

Westlaw searches the CFR and provides useful annotations that can direct you to relevant cases, law review articles, and more that discuss the regulation in question.

Other Resources