Federal law comes in three sources: 1) statutes published in the United States Code, 2) regulations created by federal agencies and published in the Code of Federal Regulations, and 3) legal decisions made by one or more of the three levels of the federal court system (district court, appellate court, and the Supreme Court). Researching federal law requires that you understand these three sources and know where they are located.
When we think of the “law” we are generally thinking about statues: rules drafted by an elected representative, voted on by Congress, enacted by the President, and published in a book. This “book” now fills many volumes and makes up what is called “statutory” or “codified” law and is officially known as the United States Code (U.S.C.).
It is fairly easy to research statutory federal law in the U.S.C. The volumes are organized by subject within fifty “titles.” In addition, there are volumes that contain a subject matter index. The trick is to boil your legal question down into relevant subject matter phrases and search the index. Even if you don’t find your exact subject, the index will often suggest an alternative subject that might be relevant.
The U.S.C. is available online from various sources. The best free site is the U.S. Government Printing Office. Their website, www.gpoaccess.gov, provides a wealth of legal research sources, including the U.S.C.
If we waited on Congress to pass all the rules and regulations needed for society to function properly, we’d still be living in a legal “wild west.” While statutes address issues of major importance, much of the legal detail is left to administrative agencies (like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Federal Aviation Administration) to work out.
In fact, you’ll find that the many volumes of the U.S.C. are dwarfed by the sheer vastness of agency regulations, published in what is called the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). While not as present in our minds when we think of federal law, these regulations have the force of law no different that the statutes. Violating regulations is breaking the law just the same, with the same potential for punishment (i.e. monetary fine, incarceration, or loss of privileges).
Again, the U.S. Government Printing Office website is the best place to research regulations. There is an online version of the CFR, which is organized by Title and subject matter like the U.S.C.
It would be nearly impossible to anticipate all the potential problems in society, make a law to address them, and publish them in a book (or in a whole slew of books). Thus, neither the U.S.C. nor the CFR address every subject matter, let alone every detail that could arise with that subject matter. Furthermore, when we try to anticipate, we inevitably get something wrong or make something confusing.
Thus, federal courts must get involved in two ways: 1) to address an issue that has not been addressed by statute (at the state level referred to as common law), and 2) to explain what the law means when it is confusing or can be read to have more than one meaning.
Courts decisions sometimes, but not always, result in a law being removed or rewritten. However, more often, the law remains unchanged and to truly understand the “law” you must know whether any courts have addressed it. This is a bit more difficult and, by far, the most daunting part of legal research.
The best place to begin is at a law library, where the reference librarians are specially trained to help the public with legal research (and many have law degrees). Often this book research is starts with looking at a special version of the U.S.C. published by a private company that also includes annotations. These annotations are brief descriptions of court cases that have decided disputes involving a particular statute.
Online research, however, is quickly taking over this standard “book” research because of the ease of search by keywords and subjects (among other variables). Unfortunately, most of the best online legal research sites are quite expensive to use (e.g. Westlaw and Lexis). Many public university libraries will have limited access to these sites open to the public. In addition, there are other sites such as www.findlaw.com that can be used, though not as comprehensive as the pay sites.
Once you understand the three sources of law, researching federal law is not much difficult than researching other sources of information. The hardest part is getting started. However, both the online sources and libraries that host legal departments are well prepared to assist non-lawyers in the research efforts.