Introduction to Legal Research Resources

We have many parallel systems, the Federal system and the individual State systems.  Each has a set of lower courts where trials and hearings are held, and appellate courts where appeals from the lower courts are heard.  Each also has a legislative system that makes laws in the form of statutes, and a system of administrative agencies where more specialized regulations are made.   Most of the divisions in each of these systems are geographical and are described as a “jurisdiction.”  The rules for bringing a lawsuit or for the procedure in a trial proceeding are jurisdiction specific and may vary from one state to another.  Please visit our tutorials page for more in-depth information, below is a summary.

Where does “the law” come from?

  1. Constitutions represent the basic principles and rights of the citizens.
  2. Statutes are created by the Federal and State legislatures (the U.S. Congress, the Connecticut General Assembly, etc.) which are then codified.
  3. Administrative Regulations are rules made by administrative agencies charged by Congress (or, at the state level by the State legislature) with the responsibility to regulate certain technical industries or government-administered programs.  Regulations look like statutes, act like statutes, and generally have the same force of law as statutes, but they’re created according to a different type of authority and are published separately. 
  4. Case law (common law) is the root of our legal system and is what separates ours from the legal systems in most of the rest of the world.  It is the law produced by our appellate courts, in the form of opinions that announce the judgment of the court resolving a particular issue of the application of law.  Appellate opinions clarify statutes, interpret prior decisions, and otherwise redefine existing law.

Source hierarchy: good law and the better law

 U.S. Constitution  Final word, if it is in the text itself
 Your State’s Constitution  Can’t limit rights protected by the U.S. Constitution
 Federal Statute  Generally binding, unless in conflict with the U.S. or State Constitution
 Federal Regulation  Generally has the same weight as a Federal statute
 State Statute (your state)  Generally has the same weight as a federal statute
 U.S. Supreme Court case  Final word on Constitutionality of a particular issue
 Case from the highest court in your State  Generally the final word and indicates that the issue is settled in your state.
 Intermediate Appellate case in your jurisdiction  Binding on trial courts in the same jurisdiction
 Highest court in another State or circuit Never mandatory, but may be persuasive if issue unresolved 


U.S. Supreme Court:  The U.S. Supreme Court is the foremost judicial authority in this country.  Three different publishers compile U.S. Supreme Court decisions.  All three series are organized in chronological order, but they use different indexes and digests to help you find cases.  The United States government publishes the official version, the U.S. Reports.  West Publishing Co. publishes Supreme Court Reports (also on Westlaw).  Lawyer’s Co-op publishes the Lawyers’ Edition (also on Lexis).

Federal courts The central features of the federal court system below the Supreme Court are the federal district courts and circuit courts of appeals.  Trials occur in the district courts.  Cases may be appealed from the district courts to the circuit courts of appeals.  Both kinds of federal courts have regional jurisdictions, e.g., the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which receives appeals from the district courts of New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.  Decisions from federal circuit courts of appeals are generally published in West’s Federal Reporter.  Decisions of federal district courts are not required to be published, but many are published inWest’s Federal Supplement (F. Supp.) or West’s Federal Rules Decisions (F.R.D.) (for procedure cases).   

State CourtsIn addition to the federal court system, each state has its own judicial system.  Most states have official state reporters.  Additionally, West publishes regional reporters (e.g., Atlantic Reporter) in which the most significant decisions from the state courts are reported.  See here for where to find state court materials.

Westlaw:    West publishing has a particular system of organization for its case law which links multiple sources together.    Their “topics and key number system” organizes the whole of American law into 400 topics, broken into subtopics and further into numbered divisions and thousands of subdivisions.  Armed with the correct Key Number, one can easily locate related law in all West publications, including all Codes, all case reporters and other legal publications.   Once you find one or two good cases, look up the case in either a print West Reporter or on Westlaw.  The key numbers for each of the points of law decided in the case will be reprinted at the beginning of the case.

The “perfect case” is one that:

  1. Concerns the same legal issues
  2. Involving similarly-situated parties
  3. Decided in a court of the same or higher stature
  4. In the same jurisdiction


The U.S. Constitution is printed at the beginning of the United States Code (USC, USCA, USCS).  The Annotated versions of the Constitution on in the USCA and USCS are helpful to find other relevant information regarding the text.    The United States Government also publishes “Analysis and Interpretation of the Constitution: Annotations of Cases Decided by the Supreme Court of the United States,” which contains one of the most extensive and authoritative commentaries on the Constitution.

State Constitutions:  The best source for a state constitution is usually the annotated state code.  Other great sources for State Constitution research include:

  1. Constitutions of the United States: national and State. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. : Oceana Publications, 1974-date.  Online and in Reference: KF4530 .C6 1974
  2. Reference Guides to the State Constitutions of the United States.  Individual volumes located on the Lower East Side shelved with the other corresponding state materials.
  3. Browne, Cynthia E..  CIS State constitutional conventions.  Washington, D.C. : Congressional Information Service, 1979-1989.  Location: Microform UES
  4. State Constitutions of the United States, by Robert L. Maddex and Thorpe’s Federal and State Constitutions.
  5. Early State Constitutions:  Earliest state constitutions in image files.
  6. Making of Modern Law: Primary Sources, 1620-1926: early state codes, constitutional conventions, city charters, law dictionaries, and colonial records.

Federal Statutes:  Immediately after a statute’s enactment, a version called the slip law is published. These are issued individually, as sheets or pamphlets, and are not widely distributed. Next are the session laws, which are published chronologically in the Statutes at Large.  These session laws are valuable because they represent the exact text passed by Congress.  However, they are not generally well-indexed and researching the statutes by topic is extremely difficult as each public law is static (not updated as new laws amend or repeal the existing law).  As a result, laws are also divided up and organized or codified by subject matter in the United States Code (U.S.C.), to make them easier to use.  Statutes are arranged in numbered/named Titles and within each title the topic is further subdivided into chapters, subchapters and sections.  They are generally just as much “the law” as the public laws in the Statutes at Large and oftentimes the language is taken word-for-word from the law passed.

In addition to the official version of the United States Code, there are two unofficial annotated versions of the Code: West’s United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.) and LexisNexis’s United States Code Service (U.S.C.S.).  The U.S.C., U.S.C.A., and U.S.C.S. are located on the wall immediately to the right of the circulation desk in the Third Floor Reading Room.  In the future, you will notice that you only really use the U.S.C. for citation purposes, and that most of your statutory research will be conducted in either the U.S.C.A. or the U.S.C.S.


Congress cannot possibly write legislation detailed enough to cover every situation that might arise under a given statute, so it leaves much of the work of fleshing out a state’s meaning to administrative agencies.  Different parts of the executive branch, from the Air Force to the Food and Drug Administration to the Department of Justice issue regulations that guide the implementation of Acts of Congress.

Like statutes, regulations are published in two places.  First, they are published chronologically in the Federal Register which is issued every business day.  Second, regulations are assembled in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), a set of softbound volumes adjacent to the U.S.C.  As with the U.S. Code, the CFR is organized according to subject matter.   The easiest way to find the regulations associated with a particular statute is to look in the CFR Index, which has a table at the back called “Parallel Table of Authorities and Rules.”  It allows you to find regulations enacted under any provision of the U.S. Code.  The Index is at the end of the CFR Section, Lexis and Westlaw also put out a Table guide which is shelved with their U.S.C.A/S. indexes.  Sometimes Lexis and Westlaw will even link you to applicable CFR citations straight from the statutory text, similar to how they link you to relevant law review articles and cases.

Some agencies also have a quasi-judicial function, whereby they hold hearings and issue administrative decisions.    The precedential value of these decisions varies among agencies, as does the format for publication.  Commercial looseleaf services and their online counterparts, as well as topical reporters are major sources of administrative decisions.  However, one of the easiest ways to learn of an administrative decision is through the annotations in either the USCS or the USCA.

Common Abbreviations:

 U.S.C.,U.S.C.A./S.  United States Code (Official); United States Code Annotated (West); United States Code Service (Lexis)
 U.S.,  S.Ct., L.Ed.  

United States Reports (Official); Supreme Court Reporter (West); US Supreme Court Reports, Lawyer’s Ed. (Lexis)

 F.  F.2d   F.3d  Federal Reporter (West) – Federal Court of Appeals decisions
 F. Supp.  Federal Supplement (West) – Federal District Court decisions
 F.R.D.  Federal Rules Decisions (West) – Federal decisions involving any federal rules
 A., A.2d.  Atlantic Reporter (West) – Regional reporter for state court decisions in the Atlantic region
 N.E., N.E.2d  Northeastern Reporter (West) – Regional reporter for state court decisions in the Northeastern region
 N.W., N.W.2d  Northwestern reporter (West) -  Regional reporter for state court decisions in Northwestern region
 P., P.2d., P.3d  Pacific Reporter (West) - Regional reporter for state court decisions in the Pacific region
 S.E., S.E.2d  

Southeastern Reporter (West) – Regional reporter for the state court decisions in the Southeastern region


S.W., S.W.2d, S.W.3d

 Southwestern Reporter (West) – Regional reporter for the state court decisions in the Southwestern region
 AmJurCJSALR  American Jurisprudence (West); Corpus Juris Secundum (West); American Law Reports
 F.R.,  C.F.R.  Federal Register; Code of Federal Regulations


Law Review Articles: Before running a full text search to find a pertinent law review article, try using an online index.  Aside from finding more “on-point” information, they are superior in terms of coverage when compared to all of the full-text periodical databases (including Lexis and Westlaw).   One of the librarian’s favorite online indices is “The Index of Legal Periodicals,” whose retrospective content reaches as far back as 1918.  HeinOnline also contains the PDFs of many law review publications and bar journals dating back to their creation.  Lexis and Westlaw generally provide content to law reviews published after 1980.

Legal Encyclopedias can be helpful for gaining an understanding of a particular area of the law, but they are broad in scope and do not draw together the law on a particular jurisdiction.  Corpus Juris Secundum is heavy on case law annotations and shorter on explanatory text, while American Jurisprudence is more selective with case annotations, and better incorporates relevant statutes and administrative regulations.  Both publications are distributed by West Publishing and are available electronically.

American Law Reports are commissioned by ALR publishers to address an actual case that has raised a “hot topic” or otherwise interesting legal issue at the state or the federal level.   The articles themselves, called annotations, are very structured, containing a detailed internal table of contents, as well as an index of terms and jurisdictions.  They are organized around an outline specific to that legal issue, and cover all jurisdictions in legislation and common law.  The also cite to related annotations, law review articles and other secondary resources as appropriate.   They are published as individual articles, chronologically, by West and are not arranged by topic.


Prince, Mary Miles, Bieber’s Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations, 5th Ed. Buffalo, NY: William S. Hein & Co., Inc (2001).  Location: Reference KF 246.B46 2000

Cohen, Morris L. and Kent C. Olson, Legal Research in a Nutshell, 10th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group (2010).