Research Guides

Successful Summer Strategies: Research in the Real World

General Tips for Researching Statutory Law

How does a researcher know whether to search for a controlling statute when assigned to research an issue?

  • Your assigning attorney may identify a significant statute (often by a popular name); if not, ask during your initial discussion whether there is a controlling statute or statutes.
  • Your examination of secondary sources or of a known case may reveal a citation to a relevant statute.
  • Even if neither of the above occurs, you may need to conduct some basic statute research to satisfy yourself that your assignment does not involve statutory law.

What general points should I keep in mind?

  • Statute sections are rarely meant to be understood in isolation from one another. It is always necessary to examine the surrounding sections to fully understand a statute section's application.
  • Never assume that a term used in a statute section has its obvious or colloquial meaning. The term may be defined within the section in which it appears, or in a separate "definitions" section. Always check for definitions to determine whether a term has a special meaning for the purpose of the statute.

Should I use print or electronic sources?

    Advantages in using print sources:
    • You will not incur online charges.
    • It may be easier in a print code to read surrounding sections and/or to locate definitions sections, to get a feel for the overall statutory scheme, or to review the annotations, especially if numerous.
    • It may be easier to locate a statute by using a print index, where new index terms might be suggested to you, rather than by electronic searching, which sometimes yields many irrelevant documents.
    Advantages in using Lexis and Westlaw:
    • Lexis and Westlaw contain full versions of the federal and all states' codes, including annotations. The services also contain databases covering materials from the most recent legislative session which may not yet be integrated into the code databases. The Lexis and Westlaw versions of statutes are more current than those in the print volumes, which are updated by annual pocket parts and/or by pamphlet supplements.
    • You can use the "Book Browse" (Lexis) and "Documents in Sequence" (Westlaw) functions to see neighboring statute sections.
    • You can access documents from the annotations with a click.
    • You can use citators (Shepard's on Lexis or Key Cite on Westlaw), both to check the validity of a statute section and to locate cases that have applied or interpreted it.

Can I use the Internet?

Versions of the federal and many state codes appear on various Internet sites. Use caution in the areas of currency and authoritative nature of the materials. One good resource that provides links to the U.S. Code and electronic versions of state codes is the Cornell Legal Information Institute: Constitutions, Statutes and Codes page.

What if I need an earlier version of a statute?

There may be times, such as when you are litigating a case that arose before recent amendments, that you will need an older version of a statute. In general the law that applies is the law that existed at the time of the occurrence at issue. It is generally best to consult a librarian when this occurs to determine the availability of superseded code volumes for the applicable jurisdiction. Lexis and Westlaw also contain some historical statute coverage.

And finally..

Statutory language is frequently the product of political negotiation and compromise, and may thus be broad and/or ambiguous. A researcher must search for cases that have applied and interpreted statutory language.

For in-depth information on statutory research, consult the TMLL Guide to Legal Research, "Statutory Law Research."


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