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Zimmerman's Research Guide


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State Statutes and Codes

Technically, a "statute" is an individual law, the equivalent of a Federal "Public Law" or "Private Law," also known in many states as "Chapter Laws" or, more generally, as "Session Laws." In all states, most (but not all) statutes are "codified," that is, integrated into the state's Code of laws by subject.

In practice, a state's "statutes" can mean either (a) the state's individual session laws or (b) the entire Code of laws. Generally you can tell the difference by the context, but not always, so sometimes you have to ask for clarification.

Getting statutes and code sections: All states (and the District of Columbia) publish hard copy versions of their statutes and codes. You can look up the exact title of the state's published code and session laws from blue pages on that state in The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation or Appendix 1 of the ALWD Citation Manual.

The traditional ways to get statutes and code sections are (a) to pull the book off the shelf of your own library, (b) to borrow the appropriate volume from another library or (c) to get copies by calling the document delivery service in a law school or bar association library. These are all still excellent ways of getting statutes and code sections.

Now you can also get statutory Code sections free online. States post their Codes and recent statutes on the Internet, either directly or through a designated publisher. You can find links to these materials using American Sources On-Line (ALSO) or FindLaw's State Law Resources page. Use these wisely; there is no guarantee that the government sites are up-to-date or user friendly.

All state Codes are on Lexis (xx-ALS) and Westlaw (xx-ST-ANN or xx-ST-ANN), Loislaw and, for most states, Fastcase. These are all reliable sources, and printing out sections is often quicker than photocopying. Lexis and Westlaw also offer annotated Code sections for most states.

Most states post their recent session laws free, usually on their legislature's web site. You can link to most of these sites through American Sources On-Line (ALSO) or FindLaw's State Law Resources page.

You can search state session laws on Lexis (xx-ALS) and Westlaw. Databases usually go back to the later 20th Century.

Subscribers to the Hein Online Digital Session Law Collection can access older session laws for all 50 states going back at least to 1981. The Collection has much deeper databases for a number of states including California (1849), Florida (1822), Illinois (1809), Maryland (1777), New York (1775), Ohio (1803), Pennsylvania (1776), Texas (1824) and Virginia (1776).

The LLMC Digital Law Library by the Law Library Microform Consortium also has deep databases of old session laws. The Library is available by subscription only, but it is available through many academic and membership library web sites.

Multi-State Searching: The fee-based services all let you search codes and statutes from multiple states at the same time. LawGuru's Multiple Research Tool lets you do something similar by simultaneously searching multiple online Code sites.

Answers to common questions: Here are the answers to some common questions about getting state statues and Codes.

(1) Should I use the hard copy, Lexis, Westlaw, Loislaw, Fastcase or a free Web site? This is a good question, but I'm glad to say that it usually doesn't matter because any of these sources can get you what you want for most situations. In most other situation you automatically know which sources won't work (e.g., you can't use Loislaw if you don't have a password), and which ones are best for the job (e.g., only Lexis and Westlaw have annotated Codes). Nonetheless, some important factors to keep in mind include:

The Codes posted for free on the Internet may not be proofread or up-to-date - don't use them when accuracy is critical, unless you know the site in question is reliable.

New session law generally show up first on a state's Web page, then on Lexis and Westlaw, and last in the official state print publication.

Lexis and Westlaw are usually the first places to incorporate new session laws into a state's Code.

Lexis and Westlaw usually cost money to use, while LOIS and books in your library don't. However, if you have a special arrangement that lets you use Lexis or for a flat fee or free, these services are hard to beat for fast and accurate information.

The easy way is often the best way. You are more likely to get the right thing if get some thing the easy way than if you get it the hard way. Also, the more time you spend on a simple request like getting a statute or Code section, the less time you have for the hard requests.

(2) How do I know which volume to borrow?

(a) Session Laws. Bound volumes of session laws are generally published by year, and the year is generally part of the citation (e.g., "Chapter 15, Laws of 1995"). If you don't know the cite for a recent statute, you might want to use an online database, where you can search by key words.

Alternatively, you can look up the subject in the Index to the state's Code, go to the section where the statue has been Codified, and you'll probably find the citation for your statute in the annotations. I think of this as "the hard way" (see my reasons to use "the easy way," above).

(b) Codes. To figure out which volume of a state's statutory code to borrow, look in the Hein Checklist of Statutes (State and Territorial). If you don't have the Hein Checklist, search the table of contents for the relevant state statute on Lexis (searching a Table of Contents is free if you're using a transactional password; you pay only if you get text of the statute) or another free electronic version of the code.

(3) How do I get cases interpreting a particular statute? In most states, you'll find annotations of the significant cases after the relevant section in print version of the Code. If you don't have access to the Code in print, or if the state's hard copy statutes aren't annotated, Westlaw (xx-st-ann) and Lexis have annotated statute files for just about all the states.

In addition, you can Shepardize or KeyCite session laws, which gets you both cases and later session laws that amend the original session law. (For more information on Shepardizing and KeyCite, see "Shepardizing.")

(4) How do I get outdated editions of a state's statutory Code? Generally, large law libraries - especially state and bar association law libraries - keep outdated editions of state codes. For example, the NY County Lawyers' Association Library has historical codes from all states and makes copies very efficiently for a reasonable fee. In addition, Lexis, Westlaw and Fastcase have databases of outdated editions of state codes from past years.

For more specific information, see the entries for individual states and subjects.


See Also
Public Laws
Private Laws
Shepardizing
State Bills and Bill Tracking
State Constitutions
State Regulations and Administrative Codes

For comments, questions and suggestions, email the author
Copyright 2014 Andrew Zimmerman