Legal Research Basics

Index to this Guide

Laws & Bills (Legislative Branch)

Cases (Judicial Branch)

Rules & Regulations (Executive Branch)

Laws & Bills (Legislative Branch)


Congress:  passes bills into public laws that are codified into the US Code. For a summary of the process, go to How Our Laws are Made.

Sample Citations

  • Federal Act as a Code (codified, or, arranged by subject in the United States Code): Children’s Television Act of 1990, 47 U.S.C. §§ 303a-303d (2011).
  • Federal Act as a Session Law (published as it was passed in order of the the session of Congress and bill number passed: 104th Session of Congress, 104th bill passed): Telecommunications Act, Pub L. No. 104-104, §110 Stat. 56 (1996)

Note: The official version is the U.S.C. West: U.S.C.A (United States Code Annotated).  LexisNexis: U.S.C.S. (United States Code Service).

Access the Law: Federal Codes

  • United States Code
    The codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States. It is divided by broad subjects into 50 titles and published by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives.   Search a variety of ways including Popular Name, Cite checker, Statutes at Large, etc.   Covers 1994 - present. (through the FDsys, the Federal Digital System of the Government Printing Office (GPO). If you have a cite to the USC, this is a good place to browse it. First, chose the latest date from the drop-down menu and click GO. If the area of law is not found, try the previous year. Click the Title of the code you are interested in to browse to a particular section.
  • U.S. Code from the House of Representatives This an alternate site for accessing the U.S.C.
  • Legal Information Institute (LII)
    Cornell University Law School website. Go to U.S. Code to find the useful Table of Popular Names. Researchers can look up the name of an act and find the corresponding USC and Public Law number.

Access the Law: Federal Bills

  • Search for bills, laws, hearings, committee reports, and the Congressional Record.


State legislatures pass bills which then become codified in that state's codes. Sample Statute Citations: (see page 255 of the BlueBook for examples of New York Statutory compilations).

  • Pub. Off. Law 84-90 (Freedom of Information Law)
  • N.Y. Pub. Off. Law 84-90 (McKinney 1988 & Supp. 1997) (as found cited in a law review article; West's version of NY statutes is McKinney's)
  • NY CLS Pub O § 84 (2014) (as it appears in LexisNexis Academic; LNA's version of NY statutes is the New York Consolidated Law Service)

Sample Bill

  • 2008 NY Assembly Bill A9652-B or 2008 NY Senate Bill S6687-C

Access the Law

  • New York State Legislature: Bills and Laws To access the laws, click the tab Laws: Laws of New York in the green field at the top of the page. You can search or browse the Consolidated Law (laws consolidated by subject).
  • New York Consolidated Laws Service
    Laws of the State of New York through LexisNexis Academic.  Searching LexisNexis for New York laws is difficult. I recommend browsing the laws from the NY State Legislature, see above.
  • New York Codes, Rules and Regulations (NYCRR)
    Unofficial version of NY Regulations from the New York State Division of Administrative Rules.  Click here to access the NYCRR directly.
  • If the bill passed, look at the HISTORY of the NY CLS citation in LexisNexis Academic. For example, NY CLS CPLR § 302 (2014) concerns "Foreign defamation judgment" (colloquilly, "libel tourism"). The latest change was L 2008, ch 66 § 3. If you search the New York State Legislature's Laws of New York by Chapter No. 66 for 2008 and read section 3, you'll find where the bill updated the law. It will tell you the original bill numbers:  S6687-C and A9652-B—the Senate and Assembly bill numbers.


Cases (Judicial Branch)

FEDERAL (Highest courts are listed first)

  • Supreme Court: Cases by the Supreme Court are binding to all lower court decisions. Our system of law uses stare decisis “stand by things decided”, a system of precedence where points of law that have been already decided in cases are referred to in court. The first time a decision is made on a legal point, it sets a precedence. However, if a higher court decides differently on that point of law, the case from the higher court must be followed.

    Sample Citation: New York Times Co. v United States:403 U.S. 713 (1971)
  • Court of Appeals: The 94 U.S. judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a United States court of appeals. A court of appeals hears appeals from the district courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws and cases decided by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.

    Sample Citation:Authors Guild, Inc. v. HathiTrust, 755 F. 3d 87 - Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit 2014
  • Federal District Courts: There are 11 Federal District Courts

Access Federal Court Cases

  • Law Reviews from LexisNexis Academic
    In-depth analysis of major cases and/or legal concepts/laws by laws studens on a wide range of topics such as the First Amendment, tobacco litigation, etc.  Try using the atleast command; ex. atleast5("open internet" or "network neutrality") -- those phrases would need to appear at least 5 times in the article for it to be retrieved.  The number can vary.  Law reviews will cite the most important cases for a particular point of law (through the date of publication). It is a good way to start searching for case law as it also offers history and background (context).
  • Federal and State Cases from LexisNexis Academic
    Click on "Advanced Options" under the search box to limit by date or court.  
  • Google Scholar Click the radio button for Case Law under the search box.
  • Supreme Court of the United States
    The official website of the Supreme Court provides recent and pending case opinions, the current calendar, oral argument transcripts and a docket database. Go to Oral Arguments > Argument Transcripts for transcripts. Go to Opinions > Bound Volumes to browse the U.S. Reports. Slip opinions are also available.
  • Supreme Court Reporter
    Periodicals KF101 .S95
    St. Paul : West Pub. Co., 1883-1988.
  • Oyez : U.S. Supreme Court Multimedia
    User friendly website that contains biographies of Supreme Court justices, case decisions, and some audio transcripts of select cases.
    Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is an electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information from federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts, and the PACER Case Locator via the Internet. PACER is provided by the federal Judiciary in keeping with its commitment to providing public access to court information via a centralized service.  There are fees associated with using PACER, but if your usage does not exceed $10 in a quarter, fees for that quarter are waived. Need to create an account to use; can be charged to your personal account if you use it a lot. Use this for cases that are not yet decided and still in docket form.
  • RECAP Archive
    The Free Law Project seeks to provide free access to primary legal materials, develop legal research tools, and support academic research on legal corpora. CourtListener is the primary free repository of all the court opinions they have collected.  The RECAP Archive contains PACER documents and dockets.

Other Federal Courts: Bankruptcy, Tax Court, International Trade, Court of Appeals for Armed Forces, Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims


Each state may have two or more levels. There are also courts which deal with civil and/or criminal cases.


Rules & Regulations (Executive Branch)

FEDERAL (President and Federal Agencies)

Executive Branch: The executive branch includes administrative agencies such as the Federal Communication Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, etc. Each one of these agencies published proposed regulations in the Federal Register (FR). If they are passed, they are included in the Code of Federal Regulation (CFR). Regulations in the CFR should not conflict with the US Code. Presidential proclamations and orders are compiled in Title 3 of the CFR.

  • eCFR-Electronic Code of Federal Regulations
    The Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR) is a currently updated version of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). It is not an official legal edition of the CFR. The e-CFR is an editorial compilation of CFR material and Federal Register amendments produced by the National Archives and Records Administration's Office of the Federal Register (OFR) and the Government Printing Office. The OFR updates the material in the e-CFR on a daily basis. The current update status appears at the top of all e-CFR web pages
  • Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)
    Codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the departments and agencies of the Federal Government.  The 50 subject matter titles contain one or more individual volumes, which are updated once each calendar year, on a staggered basis.  Each title is divided into chapters, which usually bear the name of the issuing agency. Each chapter is further subdivided into parts that cover specific regulatory areas.
  • Federal Register via FDsys
    Government website for finding regulations issued by U.S. government agencies.

Note: Executive branch agencies often include regulations on their site. For example, the Copyright Office includes CFR Title 37 on their webpage. A practitioner would use the official version found in print in the law library or through the Federal Digital System.



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At a glance: Citations

A Case New York Times Co. v United States: 403 U.S. 713 (1971)
In a law library, this case would be found in volume 403 of the U.S. Reports on page 713.  The case was decided in 1971.  It is frequently referred to as "The Pentagon Papers" case.

A Code/Statute:  47 U.S.C. §§ 303a-303d (2011)
In a law library,  this law  would be found in the United States Code in Title 47 between sections 303a to 303d.  This code is current through 2011.

Citing: The Blue Book

Below are two chapters scanned from the Harvard Blue Book. Depending on your topic and sources, you may need to use other chapters from the Havard Blue Book which is located at the Library's Research Help Desk. 

How to Cite Statutes (R12) pdf
How to Cite Legislative Materials (R13) pdf

Northeaster University has a helpful "Guide to the Bluebook."

Related Guides


Legal Research Portals: Free online

You can find laws though non-governmental websites free online.  Sometimes they will have advertisements or ask for donations.  Here are a few you may use:

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