The "law" is defined as a body of rules of societal conduct that is created and enforced by an authority, e.g., an established government. In the United States it is a mosaic of federal and state constitutions, legislation enacted by federal and state governments, treaties, federal and state court decisions, administrative agency regulations, executive orders and local ordinances. This mosaic can be grouped into the following three major components:
Statutory Law -- federal and state statutes and constitutions as passed by legislative bodies.
The United States uses a "common law" system that operates under the doctrine of "precedent" orstare decisis (Latin for "let the decision stand"). This means that, as judges issue opinions in higher level courts, they establish precedent that guides the rulings of other judges in similar cases and jurisdictions. Over time these legal opinions establish, refine and clarify societal law. This creates an element of societal stability by treating similiar facts in the same way. Legal opinion may respond over time to changing societal mores or technological developments, e.g., the overruling of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans.(1954) regarding racial segregation.
Agencies are sometimes given in statutory law the regulatory authority to create more detailed rules that define responsibilities and permissible actions in their areas of societal responsibility. (Here is a list of federal departments and agencies with regulatory responsibilities. The Federal Regulatory Directory (KF 5408 A15 F4) describes federal regulatory agencies and the specific statutory laws under which they derive their regulatory responsibilities. )
The following sources provide a basic introduction to the legislative, judicial and regulatory process:
Statutes, regulations, and court cases are extensively cited in both primary and secondary legal sources. Legal citation uses a standardized set of abbreviations and formatting that allows one to reference them with precision so that others can find and use them. Legal Citation and Abbreviations lists a number of useful guides and dictionaries to legal citation. Following are examples of legal citations to key federal and California legal sources. (Note: the links in the following section go to the descriptions of these primary legal resources in Statutory, Case and Administrative Law: Federal & California)
Citing and referencing case law, legislation, and regulations: Watch these 3 videos by Peter Martin (2016) in the “Basic Legal Citation” video series:
Similar to other scholarly areas legal materials can be divided into those that
1) contain original decisions and actions,
2) those that describe, explain or analyze them; and
3) tools to help identify them.
Primary Sources - publications which contain the original decisions and actions of legislative, judicial, and administrative bodies. See Statutory, Case and Administrative Law: Federal & California for those available through the HSU Library.
Secondary Sources - publications that describe, explain, or analyze the law. These publications are typically prepared by scholars, lawyers, and other commentators, and have no official legal authority. Examples are legal practice manuals, treatises, encyclopedias, commentaries, and law review articles. The Legal Reference Resources page lists important general sources available through the HSU Library. This Legal Research Guide also contains tabs listing sources in more specialized fields.
Finding Tools - these facilitate access to primary and secondary sources of law and include literature databases, digests, and citators.
When starting legal research it is best to begin with secondary sources (legal practice manuals, treatises, encyclopedias, commentaries, and law review articles) that provide a broader overview on a topic and cite key laws, cases and regulations. See Legal Reference Resources for databases that index secondary sources.