Primary Sources

Primary Sources in the United States

American Primary Legal Resources

This section discusses the major American primary legal resources, including case law and legislation.

American Case Law

In the United States, there are federal and state courts, each with jurisdictions of first instance ( i.e. , for the initial hearing of a case) and appe llate courts variously denominated . The federal courts are composed of a District Court (which has jurisdiction in accordance with the United States Code), the Federal Court of Appeals (or Circuit Court), and the United States Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal in the federal system and for federal issues raised in state courts, but except for certain specific types of cases, petitions are for discretionary review and not as a right of appeal.

The discussion below emphasizes American case law in print format. There is an entire database of American case law available online, either through Westlaw or Lexis-Nexis. On the Internet, a quick route to comprehensive links to U.S. case law and legislative material on the web are Findlaw and Cornell’s Legal Information Institute.

American Cases – Federal Courts

Supreme Court of the United States

Official court reporting began in 1790 with the inception of the United States Reports , cited U.S., which remains the official edition of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Citations to volumes of the U.S. Reports before volume 91 (1875) must include a reference to the particular official reporter of the Court. There were seven such reporters.

Federal Courts

There are no official reports of cases decided in the other federal courts. However, three unofficial reports, all published by West Publishing Company, provide selected cases from these courts.

Federal Reporter, cited F.2d, reports cases from the U.S. Courts of Appeal, the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Claims. This series dates from 1880.
Federal Supplement , cited F. Supp., reports cases from the U.S. District Courts and the U.S. Customs Court. This series dates from 1932.
Federal Rules Decisions , cited F.R.D., reports decisions from federal courts on procedural matters, as well as speeches and articles dealing with federal procedure.
In addition, a closed set of cases, Federal Cases , published by West Publishing Company, is a reprint of the most important lower federal court decisions from 1789 to 1880.

American Cases – State Courts

Official Reports

Official reports of state decisions are greatly over-shadowed by the comprehensive reporting system developed by West and Lexis. Official reports must be cited in legal briefs and memoranda, although the citation of the commercial reports are generally included.

Unofficial Reports: National Reporter System

Published by West, this consists of a series of regional reporters that collectively publish most of the decisions issued by the appellate courts of all the states. The regions are Atlantic, Pacific, North Eastern, South Eastern, North Western, South Western, and Southern. A map in the front of each volume shows the states contained in each. These series are supplemented by separate reporters for two states, the New York Supplement and the California Reporter . These two reporters also include selected lower court decisions. The nine reporters, together with West’s federal court reporters described above, comprise a uniform system that is tied together by the key number indexing and digesting scheme.

Annotated Law Reports: American Law Reports (ALR)

While West purported to publish virtually all of the appellate decisions in the United States, Lawyers Cooperative Publishing Company approached (later bought by West) case reporting from a different point of view. Its series, American Law Reports (A.L.R), is based on the annotated reporting of a small selection of significant cases. A.L.R. includes only a few hundred carefully chosen state court decisions annually, each of which is annotated with an editorial discussion of the law of that case. These editorial discussions are similar to law review articles and can be very helpful. Before 1969 A.L.R. also included some annotated federal decisions, but since 1969, these appear in the A.L.R.-Federal series. Annotations in the A.L.R.’s include past developments, the current law in most states on that problem, and probable future trends. A.L.R. is significant, therefore, not so much for the decisions it reports, but for the annotations which follow each reported decision.

A number of digests and indexes, including Shepard’s on Lexis-Nexis, provided subject access to the A.L.R. (since the adquisition of West, in general only from West products). The A.L.R.’s six volume Index to Annotations provides comprehensive access to the A.L.R. system. It indexes the following series: A.L.R. 2d, A.L.R. 3d, A.L.R.4th, A.L.R. 5th, volumes 1 -58, A.L.R. Federal, volumes 1 to 144, L. Ed. 2d, volumes 1 to 144. The Index also contains Tables of Laws, Rules, and Regulations and Annotation History.

Noting Up American Cases

Researchers should note up American case law using either Shepards on Lexis-Nexis or KeyCite on Westlaw. In the past, prior to these online databases, researchers had to note up American case law using Shepard’s Citators in print. The process of noting up in the States is in fact sometimes referred to as “Shepardizing,” named after the publisher who instituted the print citators. Noting up a case is an essential part of research when you use American cases, as it verifies the status of a case and leads to more recent cases, periodical articles, and A.L.R. annotations on the same topic.

American Statutes

Although the legislative process in America bears many similarities to the legislative process, for example, in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, there are some major differences. Like Canada, power is shared between the federal and state governments. Unlike the situation in Canada, however, state governments have jurisdiction over criminal law (hence the different rules among states for the death penalty) and residual power generally lies in the states, not in the federal government (unlike the situation in Canada where most residual authority rests with the federal government).

Also, like Canada, the federal government of the United States has a bicameral legislative assembly. Legislation must each pass a three-reading process in each chamber (the House of Representatives and the Senate) before becoming law. Draft legislation is called a bill and can originate in either body of the U.S. Congress, being the House of Representatives or the Senate. The letter “H” and the number of the bill (H.R. 100) identify bills from the former, whereas the letter “S” and the number of the bill (S. 100) identify the bills from the latter.

American Regulations

American federal regulations are published in the Federal Register, a daily publication of the U.S. government. These regulations are then consolidated in the Code of Federal Regulations , which are the equivalent of the Consolidated Regulations of Canada,1978. The Code of Federal Regulations are available in full-text searchable format at the website of the Cornell University, with an explanation or overview of the Code of Federal Regulations provided by the Legal Information Institute of that Univesity. To ensure there has been no publishing lag when searching the Code of Federal Regulations, you should check the monthly pamphlet called List of C.F.R. Sections Affected and the sections of the necessary daily versions of the Federal Register called C.F.R. Parts Affected During [current month]. The Federal Register has a monthly, quarterly and annual index.

Using Primary Sources

Primary Sources: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Primary Sources. This part provides references, in relation to Primary Sources, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Primary Sources by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Primary Sources and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Primary Sources or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Primary Sources and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Primary Sources. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Primary Sources should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Primary Sources when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

*This resource guide is updated frequently. However, if you notice something is wrong or not working, or any resources that should be added, please notify us in any of the "Leave a Comment" area.

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