How to Locate Statutory Law

Once you have identified the statutory law repository you want to use, the next step is to locate the specific statutory provision you need for your research.

As mentioned before, the preliminary step before locating a statutory provision is to identify the appropriate jurisdiction:

  1. federal or
  2. state.

For example, if you want to search copyright preemption, then you need to use the United States Code, the federal statutory compilation organized by subject matter. If you need to find some provision on marriage, or adoption or assault and battery, then you will need to find the appropriate state statutory compilation, and proceed with the information you have at hand.

Locating a Statutory Provision Using Its Citation

First, you need to understand the citation and for that purpose, the Bluebook is the best tool. Then you need to decide what repository you will use, print or digital.

If you want to use print repositories to locate a federal public law, for example, then you need to remember the structure of public laws citations. It contains three parts:

  1. the first number represents the Statutes at Large volume,
  2. the following string of letters is the abbreviation of Statutes at Large, and
  3. the last number represents the page where the statute starts.

If you want to find the statute corresponding to a specific U.S.C. citation, and decide to use the print repository, then you need to remember that a U.S.C. citation also contains three parts:

  1. the first number represents the title containing the provision (which is written on the spine of each U.S.C. volume),
  2. the following string of letters is the abbreviation of the United States Code, and
  3. the last number preceded by this symbol “§” represents the section of the statutory provision within that title.

For example, if you want to use the print version of the United States Code, and you want to find 42 U.S.C. § 1983, then you go to the print set and browse the appropriate volume. If you want to use an electronic repository then you type the citation in the appropriate search box.

Here are some practice exercises:

If you look for a state statute, sometimes the citation may not be so easily understood. If the citation refers to a commercial compilation which includes the name of the publisher, such as McKinney’s Consolidated Laws of New York or just McKinney’s Consolidated Laws, you will need to use the Bluebook and decipher the meaning of that title. In this case, McKinney’s Consolidated Laws represents the codified version of New York statutes.

Similarly, if you want to find a state statute using its citation, follow the same steps:

  1. decipher its title by using the Bluebook;
  2. find the appropriate statutory compilation and
  3. decide whether you can use it in print or online.


Locating a Statutory Provision Using Information Other than Its Citation

Usually, in all such instances you will have to use codified compilations. If you have the name of a statute, you use the appropriate finding aid for locating statutes by their name. At the federal level it is called Popular Name Tables.

Here is a practice exercise on this topic:

If you are interested in located a statute on a specific topic, then you will be well-advised to start with an index. Most statutory codifications have indexes, especially the commercial ones, which come with indexes both in print and on line.

Here is a brief practice exercise:

If you use free-of-charge digital sources, then your statutory research will have to be limited to a full-text search or a citation search, for lack of finding aid tools, such as indexes.

Thus, the rule of thumb for locating statutes when you know information other than the statutory citation is:

  1. Use the Popular Name Tables when you know the name (or its abbreviation) of a statute (e.g., CERCLA); and
  2. Use the Index of any codified statutory compilation.

Municipal law research does not necessarily fit within the paradigm delineated above. Those sources may be easier to find or to the contrary, more obscure than regular statutory provisions. However, remember that there often is a published index for municipal law in your local public library and that recent municipal ordinances are searchable online. An annual index of the New York local laws is located in the New York City Legislative Annual. Also, this is an area of law where a research aid tool, such as a research guide comes in handy. Similarly, to a certain extent Lexis, Westlaw, and cover municipal law, and a search using those databases, though expensive, will have the same virtues exposed so many times here.

Exercise on how to find a statute by its citation
Exercise on how to use the Popular Names Table
Exercises on keyword and index searches of federal statutory codifications