Identifying Specific Content within Each Repository – Unpacking Legal Citations

Once you have identified the appropriate legal repository, you are closer to the end of your journey. It is easier to find the particular piece of legislation, or case law, or administrative law that answers your question. Again, this step depends on the information you have at hand. If you found a citation, you need to translate it correctly within that repository, whether it is electronic or imprint. If you know the name of the specific statute, or of one of the parties involved in the lawsuit, you need to use the appropriate finding aid tool within that repository. If you have other identifying information, you need to be able to use it fruitfully as well. Let’s see a few examples.

The Starting Point is a Citation

Step 1: When you start your search with a citation, you need to interpret it.

As the example below shows, you need to be familiar with the abbreviations for the federal repositories briefly discussed above, and identify each part of the abbreviation for a document contained in each of those repositories.

Any legal citation identifies a document as part of a print multi-volume legal collection, whether you will use a print version of the document or its online counterpart. Thus, it is usually composed of three parts: a number that precedes the abbreviation, and which identifies the number of the volume of the collection, the abbreviation of the collection, and a number that follows the abbreviation and which identifies the page where the document starts. For example, if the citation you have is 78 STAT. 252 that means that you are looking for is a public law that is published in the 78th volume of the Statutes at Large and it starts on page 252.

Sometimes a citation will contain more than the three parts mentioned above. For example, the citation of a court’s opinion contains the name of the parties, as well as the abbreviation of the reporter where it is published, which is preceded by the volume number and followed by the page where the opinion starts, and then by a parenthetical which contains the year when the case was decided. Those situations will be also further explained later, when we will discuss in detail how to find each type of legal document. However, for now you need to remember that if you decide to locate a case in the print reporters — multi-volume sets which contain case law – then you need to have a proper citation. Otherwise, such an approach is useless. Reporters do not have comprehensive set indexes. They only have table of contents for each volume’s cases. Without even a partial citation that will identify the reporter and the volume where the opinion is published you cannot locate it. The fee-based databases and to a lesser degree Google Scholar and FindLaw are better places to search.

Step 2: When you start your search with a citation, once you understand your citation, then you locate the identified document in the appropriate print or digital repository.

List of Abbreviations of Official Primary Sources of Federal Law and Examples of How to Cite Them

Citing Federal Sources

1. Federal Statutes

a) Statues at Large (STAT)

example – 78 STAT. 252 (P.L. 88-352)

rule of citation - vol.# abbr. pg.#

b) United States Code (USC)

example – 42 U.S.C. § 2000d

rule of citation - title.# abbr. §#

2. Court Opinions. Supreme Court Opinions

a) United States Reports (U.S.)

example – Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001)

rule of citation - vol.# abbr. pg.#

b) Federal Reporter (F)

example –

rule of citation - vol. # F. pg. #

3. Administrative Rules and Regulations

a) Federal Register (F.R.)

example – 65 F.R. 39775

rule of citation - vol.# abbr. pg.#

b) Code Of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.)

example – 34 C.F.R. § 100.1

rule of citation - title# abbr. §#

Now, that you “unpacked” the citation, us it

  1.  Go to the repository abbreviated in the citation to identify the needed document.

For example, if you know the name of the statute or the number of the Congress that passed it, then it becomes manageable to locate it in the Statutes at Large, whose abbreviation STAT is contained in the Public Law citation of the statue.

        2. Adapt your strategy to the format of the repository you use (digital or print)


Continuing the statutory example started above, you can locate that statute either in print or online.

If you decide to find it in print, then your strategy requires some knowledge about the print repository. You remember that each print volume contains a list of the statutes it houses and it identifies them by their public law number and their name.

For example, if you are interested in locating The Civil Rights Act of 1964 you will go to the volumes of the 88th Congress, which cover that year, and browse their table of contents. Thus, you will find out that the statute was published in the 78th volume and it starts on page 240.

While all fee-based databases contain the entire collection of Statutes at Large, the free-of-charge digital repositories, as explained in the preceding sections are not that comprehensive.

On the other hand, if you want to read only a part of the Civil Rights Act on 1964 in its current version, then you should use the United States Code and its General Index, in print or on line. For example, if you want to read Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which focuses on the prevention of discrimination in federally assisted programs on racial grounds, then you go the print General Index C-D, and search under the “civil rights” heading for “federal aid” and for “exclusion for participation …on grounds of race.” You will find that that statutory provision is codified in the 42nd Title of the United States Code in section 2000d. Similarly, you will search the digital index.

Then, you can find the codified section in print or online. Digitally, you may go to the electronic version of the Code, through FDSys , FindLaw, or Cornell’s LII. From FDSYs you will follow the instructions from the Code’s page that explain what type of Boolean search will more effective.


Similarly, when you do not have the citation of a case, but you know where the case was adjudicated and the names of the parties involved, then by choosing the appropriate court, within the limits explained below, you will be able to run a successful search in all available databases, and with some level of success from Google Scholar and FindLaw.


Both the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations have finding-aid tools. So whether you know the citation of the document—65 F.R. 38775, or 34 C.F.R. 100.1—or only its subject matter, you should be able to locate it easily. Both the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations can be accessed on line as explained in the preceding sections.

Next we will talk about the final step in your plan and research log, updating. Depending on your financial resources, this step may require a lot of planning, or, if you have the resources, very little effort. Nevertheless, you need to remember that legal research does not end without it.