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First Year Legal Research Guide

This guide provides resources to help new Scalia Law students become more familiar with legal research tools and strategies.

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Primary Sources of Law

Primary sources include constitutions, cases, statutes, and regulations created by the three branches of government. Most primary law can be found online, and the library maintains a small print collection of federal and Virginia materials on the second floor.


The United States and every state in the nation has a constitution. Created at a convention in 1787, the U.S Constitution is the supreme law of the land and the source of executive, legislative, and judicial government powers. The Virginia Constitution only governs the state, and is structured similarly to the federal constitution.

The U.S. Constitution can be amended at anytime through the formation of a new constitutional convention, but this has not occurred since 1787. Constitutional amendments to the Virginia Constitution are added only after approval by a majority of the legislature and the voting public. The U.S. Constitution requires approval by 2/3 of both houses of Congress and ratification by 3/4 of the states. The federal constitution has been amended 27 times to date, and the first 10 amendments are the "Bill of Rights".

The text of the U.S. Constitution is fairly easy to find both in print and online -- feel free to stop by the Law Library reference office to receive your own personal copy. 


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Federal and State Statutes

Statutes are written and enacted by the legislative branch of government. In conjunction with constitutions and opinions written by judges, statutes are what most people think of when they say "the law". Since statutes are created directly by a legislative body, they are often considered the most authoritative source of primary law. Researching case law will help you interpret the statute.

To fully understand federal statutes, it may be helpful to revisit how a bill becomes a law: 

As you can see, there is a lengthy process with lots of documentation along the way. Advanced legal researchers use these legislative documents to compile legislative histories that help them better understand the law.

Publication of state statutes vary. Every state has statutes available online, whether on an official state government site or a free public site. Federal laws are published as:

  • slip laws - printed on a single sheet of paper or in pamphlet form, and assigned a Public Law Number to identify it (for instance, Pub. L. No. 111-148)
  • session laws  - slip laws bound chronologically by session of Congress and published by the U.S. government in Statutes at Large
  • codes - arranges statutes by topic rather than date and incorporates any amendments and repealed language

The United States Code (U.S.C.) is the official code containing federal statutes. The U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) aims to publish the official code every 6 years, with 5 cumulative bound supplements covering every year in between. It is broken into 54 subject Titles, and each Title represents a subject area (e.g., Armed Forces, Commerce and Trade, Education).

Official publication of the U.S.C. often lags several years behind. The government cannot print a new main edition or supplement until the corresponding session of Congress finishes. Law enacted at the end of a session may impact titles at the beginning of the U.S.C. There is a necessary gap between a law's date of enactment and the date on which it appears in the printed version.

The official U.S.C. contains no explanatory material, and you'll more than likely begin your research with a general legal topic. For these reasons, it's usually best to start with an annotated version of a code available online through Lexis (United States Code Service, or U.S.C.S.) and Westlaw (United States Code Annotated, or U.S.C.A.). These unofficial codes include references to primary and secondary sources that relate to each code section, in addition to other materials like the U.S. Constitution, federal court rules, Federal Rules of Evidence, and cross-references to related administrative rules and regulations. Because they are commercially published, these unofficial codes are also updated more frequently than the official U.S.C.

Both the U.S.C.S and the U.S.C.A. include an Index, a Popular Name Table (i.e. Affordable Care Act, USA PATRIOT Act), and parallel references to Public Laws, session laws, and Code sections. Print versions are updated annually with pocket parts and supplements that show changes to the code sections. 

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Case Law

Judicial opinions are written by judges to interpret and apply other primary law and resolve legal disputes. As a legal researcher, you will have to review cases to determine how a court will rule if given similar facts. Civil and criminal cases are brought in both state and federal courts, but only the government can initiate a criminal case. Cases are first decided in the state trial or federal district court, and then can move on to intermediate appellate courts.

In print, cases are published in chronological reporters based on the date they were decided, and not by subject. It is difficult to use print reporters for quick research projects because cases are published chronologically and don’t automatically include an index. To complete case law research, you’ll need what we call a digest -- this index will organize the cases by topic and subtopic instead of date, allowing you to easily find similar cases with similar legal issues. Digests are available in print on the second floor, but they are also available online through Westlaw Key Numbers and Lexis Topics. 

Official reporters are published by state and federal governments. West publishes unofficial reporters as part of its National Reporter System, printing every reported case from every jurisdiction. There are seven state regional reporters, shown in the map below:

The published case law, or common law, sets precedent. In print, only cases with precedential value from intermediate appellate courts and supreme courts are published. Most trial court decisions are not published. “Unpublished” cases are still available online, but usually only reported or published opinions have precedential value and the force of law. Some jurisdictions allow citing to unpublished cases, but you will have to research your jurisdiction's court rules to be sure. You can cite to an unreported case as persuasive authority. 

The Law Library retains print copies of state case reporters and digests on the 2nd floor, but we no longer update these materials.

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Administrative agencies issue rules and regulations, also called "administrative law." This law stems from the executive branch of government, and are decided by entities appointed by the president or governor.

While regulations are primary law, they do not have equal weight to statutes, cases, and the U.S. Constitution. Many regulations must go through a public notice-and-comment period before they become final, and are issued by statutory authority as well. A statute can be passed that directs a government agency to develop regulations that elaborate on the law, or a statute can override a regulation and decide that an agency didn't have the authority to pass the rule.

The C.F.R. is available in print on the second floor of the Law Library. For more information, please review the links below.

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