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The United States is a federal system. While individual states retain law-making powers in certain areas, the federal government establishes the law in many others. Likewise, there is both a state and federal court system. This research guide summarizes the major primary sources of federal law, and points the reader toward a few of the most useful secondary sources in the area. Check our list of research guides for research help on specific topics.
Several options for free online sources of Codes and Constitutions are listed in Legal Research on the Web - Statutes / Constitutions.
United States Statutes at Large (cited as Stat.) is the official publication for U.S. session laws. It records public and private laws by session of Congress, in chronological order. Public laws that are first published in Statutes at Large will eventually be codified into the United States Code.
United States Code (cited as U.S.C.) is the official codified publication of U.S. statutes, arranged into fifty titles, or subjects. The USC is reissued in a new edition every six years; it is updated between editions through annual supplements. 2nd Floor KF62 2000
United States Code Annotated (cited as U.S.C.A.), published by West, is one of the two unofficial publications of U.S. statutes. In the annotations to the text, you will find brief case summaries, and references to secondary and other interpretive sources. The U.S.C.A. is available on Westlaw. Reference KF62.5 .W54
United States Code Service (cited as U.S.C.S.), published by LexisNexis, is the other unofficial publication of U.S. statutes. Like its counterpart, the U.S.C.S. also includes notes on decisions, and references to secondary sources. The U.S.C.S. is available on LexisNexis. Reference KF62 .L38
United States Constitution Annotated versions of the U.S. Constitution are available in the U.S.C.A. and the U.S.C.S.
United States Reports 2nd Floor KF101 .A2
The United States Reports is the official reporter for the Supreme Court of the United States. The set is updated through the use of slip opinions and advance sheets. There is about a three year lapse between the time a Supreme Court case is decided and its publication in United States Reports. Commercial reporters are quicker in reporting cases than United States Reports.
United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers' Edition 2nd Floor KF101 .A313
Now published by LexisNexis, the United States Reports, Lawyers' Edition (abbreviated L.Ed.) is one of the two commercial reporters for Supreme Court Cases. A second series, Lawyer's Edition 2d, continues reporting cases today.
West's Supreme Court Reporter 2nd Floor KF101 .A322
The second commercial reporter of Supreme Court cases, West's Supreme Court Reporter, is published by the West Publishing Company. Like the Lawyers' Edition, West's Supreme Court Reporter has a much faster publishing pattern than United States Reports.
On LexisNexis follow Legal >> Cases - U.S. >> Supreme Court Cases & Materials.
On Westlaw, search the All U.S. Supreme Court Cases [SCT] database.
Federal Reporter, Federal Reporter 2d, Federal Reporter 3d 2nd Floor KF110 .F42, KF110 .F422, KF110 .F423. The decisions from the federal Courts of Appeal appear in the Federal Reporter series.
Federal Supplement, Federal Supplement 2d 2nd Floor KF120 .F42, KF120 .F422
Decisions from the federal District Courts appear in the Federal Supplement series.
Federal Appendix 2nd Floor KF110 .F43. The Federal Appendix reports decisions from the lower federal courts that were not chosen for publication in the Federal Reporter or the Federal Supplement, but have appeared in Westlaw or Lexis. The Federal Appendix is a published set of unpublished opinions.
Suggestions for free online sources for federal circuit court and federal district court decisions are listed on Legal Research on the Web-Cases.
For detailed information on researching federal legislation history, consult our Legislative History Research Guide. Key documents associated with federal legislative history include Congressional bills, hearings, committee reports, Congressional debates, and Presidential approval or veto messages. These documents are all covered in detail in the Legislative History Research Guide.
For detailed information on researching federal administrative and executive materials, see our Administrative Law Research guide. This guide includes a section on Federal Regulations and Resources that addresses the Federal Register, the Code of Federal Regulations, the opinions, decisions, and orders of federal agencies, and all types of Presidential documents.
In LexisNexis, follow Legal >> Federal Legal - US >> Find Statutes, Regulations, Administrative Materials & Court Rules >> Court Rules for various options for searching federal rules. In Westlaw, you can search the Federal Rules [US-RULES] database for coverage of all federal rules. Click on the "I" for tips on how to search specific rules. There are also separate databases for individual rules.
See also the Secondary Materials & Topical Treatises section of this guide for treatises related the areas of law covered in the federal rules.
ALR Federal (1969-2004) and ALR Federal 2d (2005 - present) print research annotations that explain points of law, provide citations to leading cases on point, and direct you to statutes, regulations, forms, and other sources. KF132 .A47. On LexisNexis [Legal >> Secondary Legal >> Jurisprudences, ALR & Encyclopedias >> American Law Reports (ALR)]. On Westlaw, search the American Law Reports [ALR] database. Both of these databases contains all of the ALRs, including federal.
AmJur2d is a national legal encyclopedia that can be helpful when you are starting your research. You can use this set to read a simple overview of a topic, discover landmark cases in an area, and find citations to other relevant sources. AmJur2d is generally not cited as persuasive authority. KF164 .A422; AmJur2d is available on both LexisNexis and Westlaw.
Federal Practice Generally -- These major research sets cover all areas of federal practice, including civil, criminal, and appellate procedure.
- Moore's Federal Practice KF8840 .M64 1997 [updated regularly] Available on Lexis.
- Federal Practice and Procedure KF8840 .W68 [updated regularly] Available on Westlaw.
- Federal Procedure KF8835 .F43 [updated regularly] Available on Westlaw.
- Federal Procedure Rules Service KF8835 .F434 [updated regularly]
- Boss & Marek, Federal Criminal Practice KF9619.3 .B67 2004 [updated regularly]
- Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual KF9685 .A84 [updated regularly]
- Hertz & Liebman, Federal Habeas Corpus Practice and Procedure KF9011 .L54 2001