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Statutory Research

This guide discusses what statutes are; how statutes fit into legal research; how statutes are published; where they can be found online & in print; how to update statutes; how to find 50 state statutory surveys; & the role of uniform/model laws.

Session Laws and Codes

Updating makes more sense if one understands the relationship between session laws and codes.

Legislatures constantly pass laws. All of them are published in chronological publications called session law compilations that contain all laws passed by the legislature in a given session. Session laws have citations that indicate this chronology, e.g., P.L. 113-120 (the 120th law passed by the 113th US Congress) or St. 1959, ch. 263 (the 263rd law passed by the Massachusetts legislature in 1959).

Some laws--those of a general and permanent nature--are put into a subject-based code that makes it easier to find all of the the laws on a given topic that are currently in force. 

Codes are handy, but one must keep in mind that new laws are always being passed. It takes compilers of codes (such as state governments, Lexis, and West) a while to integrate the changes made by new session laws. 

Following the steps below will help ensure that one does not overlook an important recent change.  

Basic Steps

Caution sign1)  Goal: In addition to confirming that a court in the jurisdiction hasn't overruled or restricted the statute, you also need to determine whether recent changes to the statute would affect the client. Sometimes it won't (for example, some problems involve past acts governed by a previous version of the statute--a newly enacted change, provided it had no retroactivity, wouldn't affect the problem). Think critically about this. If updating is implicated...

2)  Identify the currency of the statutory code being used: this will vary depending on the platform. If it is very outdated, try another source, if possible. Look for the number of the last session law integrated into the code (current through PL 113-120 or through Chapter 143 of the 2014 session). Be aware that any law passed since that one will not be reflected in the text of the code.

3)  If working on a database that has a citator for statutes such as KeyCite or Shepard's, check for pending or recently enacted legislation and for negative treatment by courts, designated by a yellow or red signal. 

     a.  If there's a red signal, pull up the text of the recently enacted law (as the changes will not have been integrated into the code at this point) or of the case limiting the statute or deeming it unconstitutional; read it, and see if it affects the research at hand; check the effective date of any newly enacted legislation.

     b. If there's a yellow signal, look at the proposed legislation. Read to determine whether it is relevant to the project at hand and, if relevant, make sure the bill has not yet been enacted. One easy way to do this is to check the state legislature's website: search for the status of the bill if the state website offers bill searching or check recent session laws to see if the bill has been enacted.   

     c. If there's no signal indicating recent or proposed changes or negative treatment by courts, note this on your assignment and move on. If the statute is crucial to an argument, be sure to confirm this by checking secondary sources, such as treatises and legal news. 

4)  If working on a database that has no statutory citator (e.g., Bloomberg Law or free websites), check for recently enacted legislation that affects the statute by:

     a. For the U.S. Code, the most current source is the U.S. Code on the website of the Office of Law Revision Counsel. Use the Cite Checker tool to make sure no recent session laws have affected your provision.  

     b. For other jurisdictions with no such tool, scan or search any session laws enacted since the code was last updated.  

5)  If working on a database that has no statutory citator (e.g., Bloomberg Law or free websites), check for proposed legislation that would affect the statute by:

     a. Searching the current bills in the jurisdiction for appropriate keywords

     b. The U.S. Congress and state legislatures such as the Massachusetts legislature all offer some bill search capabilities. 

6) If working on a database that has no statutory citator (e.g., Bloomberg Law or free websites), check for negative treatment from courts in the jurisdiction by:

     a. Searching relevant case law databases for the statutory citation and relevant keywords (try different searches as a double-check); and

     b. Confirm the validity of the statute by checking secondary sources, such as treatises and legal news.