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Legal Research Process

What Are Statutes?

Statutes are pieces of legislation that have been passed by a legislative body while in session, and exist on both the federal and state level. After passage, session laws are organized by subject in a code.

For more on the legislative process, see the law library's guides to federal and Texas legislative history.

When to Look for Statutes

Any given area of law may involve statutes, regulations, and/or case law. These three types of primary law exist on both the federal and state level. Figuring out what primary law is on point to your particular issue can be difficult, which is why it is important to look for secondary sources first that pull relevant authority from all three branches of government, on both a federal and state level.

Of the three kinds of primary law to research directly after surveying secondary sources, it is usually best to start with statutes. Statutes are the springboard for regulations and much case law--statutes provide legislative authority for whatever regulations agencies may formulate and courts issue court opinions interpreting both statutes and regulations.

By this point in your research, you may already have citations to statutes from secondary sources. If that is the case, you will want to look those statutes up in an annotated code. Whatever the situation, it is at this stage in the research that you will want to turn to statutory resources to confirm that you have assembled all the relevant statutes or to confirm in fact that your question does not involve statutory law.

How to Find Statutes

Statutes are available in both print and online.

Federal: On the federal level, there is one official, unannotated version of the statutory code, the United States Code (USC), and various unofficial versions.

This guide highlights two free online versions of the USC that are unofficial and unannotated:

  1. Legal Information Institute (LII); and 
  2. US House of Representatives' Office of the Law Revision Counsel.

There are also two unofficial, annotated versions published by commercial vendors:

  1. Lexis' United States Code Service (USCS); and
  2. West's United States Code Annotated (USCA).

These are discussed in more detail in the subpages of this guide. At the Tarlton Law Library, the print version of the USC, USCS, and USCA are located in the main reading room on the second floor.

The USC is organized by subject, arranged by titles that are divided into chapters, which are further subdivided into sections. It contains the US Constitution, the Federal Rules of Civil, Criminal, Bankruptcy, and Appellate Procedure, the Federal Rules of Evidence, rules of the Courts of Appeals and specialized federal courts, the US Sentencing Guidelines, as well as selected federal regulations and international agreements. New editions of the official USC are published every six years, with supplements issued each year; in reality, new editions and supplements are slow to appear. Different versions of the USC offer different finding tools.

Texas: Texas statutes are also organized by subject in a code. The print version is known as Vernon's and is available in Tarlton's main reading room on the second floor. Texas statutes are also available online from the Texas Legislature and are on Lexis and Westlaw. 

For more information about basic statutory research, see Tarlton's legal research guide, "Finding a Statute."

How to Use a Code

The options for searching a statutory code generally include one or more of the following options:

  1. by citation;
  2. by browsing the table of contents;
  3. index;
  4. keyword/natural language;
  5. terms and connectors;
  6. field searching; and,
  7. by popular name (ex: Civil Rights Act of 1964)

If you need help understanding the popular name, try the Database of Federal Statute Names from the Yale Law Library. This database attempts to assemble every act of Congress whose name fails to reveal to the reader the matter addressed. For more, see Renata E.B. Strause et al., How Federal Statutes Are Named, 105 Law Lib. J. 7 (2013).

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