In ”America and the Image of Europe: Reflections on American Thought,” Daniel J. Boorstin remarked that the American people have an “uncanny reverence for law.”

Perhaps because of this national feature, lawyers breed in large numbers, and we are maybe the most litigious nation on earth. One reason may be that we are never too far from law or legal discourse. Talks about individual rights and due process of law thrive in school, at home, on TV, and even MTV. Legal concepts generate perhaps more popular culture (including songs and movies) than they do academic writings. American general culture often covers legal knowledge.

For instance, many know that state law defines murder and manslaughter, and many know that intention tells them apart. Of course, few know what state law is or how to find those statutes, such as the Pennsylvania ones, that define those felonies, and distinguish between intentional and involuntary homicide.

18 PA.CONS.STAT. ANN. Sect 2501 (2009): “A person is guilty of criminal homicide [murder in the first degree, defined in 2502(a)] if he intentionally ... causes the death of another human being.”
Under Pennsylvania law 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 2501 “A person is guilty of criminal homicide [murder in the first degree, defined in 2502(a)] if he intentionally … causes the death of another human being.”

In the same way European high school students learn about Henri Bergson, and other little known philosophers for their graduation examination—which the French call le baccalauréat — Americans take civics classes and learn about law. American high school graduates often know that the U.S. Supreme Court has been the guarantor of our individual freedoms, and phrases such as “You are breaking the law” and “I will take you to court” are part of the popular vocabulary.

Indeed, unlike other nations, we can say that the Supreme Court gave us the right to purchase contraception, and the right to have a private sexual relationship with a same-sex partner. For example, in 1965, in a case called Griswold v. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a zone of intimate privacy for married couples, which covered the woman’s right to decide whether her marital sexual conduct was reproductive or not. In 2003, in another case, Lawrence v. Texas, the Court similarly recognized a zone of intimate privacy for same-sex couples. Americans also know about the impact the Secretary of the Interior’s listing of a species as endangered has on the future of industrial projects within the area where that species cohabitates.

Perhaps only in America, the snail darter could have put an end to a dam project as a result of a Supreme Court decision. This happened in 1978, as a result of a case called TVA v. Hill, where the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that “the snail darter is a living entity which is genetically distinct and reproductively isolated from other fishes” according to a federal statute known as The Endangered Species Act of 1973. The U.S. Supreme Court prohibited TVA, a federal agency, from finishing the construction of the Tellico dam on the Tennessee River, although it was virtually completed, because it would have eradicated the snail darter population.

How does this widespread legal knowledge affect this introductory text? It suffices to say that a good understanding of basic concepts of American law is hard to get, though it is necessary for minimally successful legal research. This is meant to enable you to avoid making inaccurate assumptions about both law and legal research and guide you as much as possible through the realm of authoritative free-of-charge legal research.

Thus, use this Introduction as a jumpsing start point. It will make legal jargon more accessible and as a result open the door to legal research. Once you are able to identify legal concepts you can easily identify the sources of American public law: how they make the law, where the law is located, and how you can find it. Only then you will have freed your intellectual prowess to concentrate on the specific legal subjects of American law, on their rich subtleties, and study and research them proficiently.

However, while this Introduction popularizes law and makes legal research accessible, it cannot and does not supplant rigorous legal education. This is not the Ted Talk of legal research nor the legal research version of Justice with Michael Sandel.

This is as rigorous as it can be.