Research Overview of US Law


I am presenting highlights of the Research Overview of US Law Research session by Jeanette Bosschart, Great Library, Law Society of  Upper Canada and Clare Mauro, Torys, on September 16, 2010.

It was refreshing to hear Bosschart talk about reasons that US law initially can fall outside the comfort zone of Canadian law librarians, as there is a different political structure of federal and state government powers, courts can be confusing, sheer volume of information, and different publishing formats than in Canada.

But a big advantage is that there are highly accessible free and fee-based services, because of huge legal publishing industry and its long history.

First some basics: Powers are divided between state and federal government, where residual powers go to state and states have their own constitution, which is quite different from Canada’s government. Most significant is that a state supreme court is the final court of appeal, therefore no body exists like the Supreme Court of Canada as their federal court is weaker and covers a narrow jurisdiction.

As any legal researcher knows the first stop is secondary tools: the Georgetown Law Library guides, Harvard guide and Ben’s Guide to How Law Are Made, which is intended for high school students, and is an excellent plain language tool.

Leaping ahead to bills, they are published in 3 formats:

1. Slip Laws are current laws that are printed indivdually (similar to “assented to” federal bill)

an e.g. is Americans with Disabilities Act, Pub. L. No. 101-336

2. Session Laws come from statutes compiled chronologically in the Statutes at Large, when the current session of Congress ends. (similar to Statutes of Canada)

an e.g. is Americans with Disabilities Act, Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 327

3. Codified Laws are statutes incorporated into the official United States Code and organized by broad subjects (50 titles). They are published every 6 years with cumulative supplements. (similar to Revised Statutes of Canada)

But Codified Laws are not the same as Revised Laws in that statutes disassembled and incorporated into the Code according to subject, or may go into the Code in different sections of the same title. There seems to be an attempt to put some order to the laws when codified. Following through with our example: Most of the Americans with Disabilities Act is found in Title 42, Public Health and Welfare. But other provisions are found in Title 29, Labor and Title 47, Telegraphs and Telephones.

Sources for legislation include the US Code Annotated (Westlaw) and US Codes Service (Lexis), with both being frequently updated and annotated. Alternates like the  GPO Access and Cornell LII equally good free, browsable source but are not as current as the commercial sources.

The textbook publishing follows a definite hierarchy:

  • Nutshells (concise treatment but not as complex)
  • Hornbooks
  • Practitioners’ treatise series
  • Loose-leafs (massive sets and most complex treatment)

And finally, because my work involved interlibrary loan, Practicing Law Institute database at Westlaw may prove valuable for finding continuing legal education seminars, according to Clare Mauro.

As always, thank you to the organizers at the Toronto Association of Law Libraries for this informative session.

– Brenda


One Response to “Research Overview of US Law”

  1. 1 Karen

    Thanks for all the info Brenda! I find U.S. legal research difficult because I don’t do enough of it to get comfortable. I really like the Georgetown Law Library guides for getting started.

%d bloggers like this: