Know What You Research: What Statutory Law Is, Where It Is, and How You Find It

Historically, the study of American law needed to start with decisional law—judge-made law. Courts are the first resort for solving problems of civil cohabitation among people. Henry M. Hart and Albert M Sacks would explain this situation stating that “Courts are regularly open for the settlement of disputes, as legislatures are not” (1994, 163). Today, while courts continue to exercise that role, decisional (case) law has lost that chief impact. That is perhaps because the other branches of the government are more actively involved in governing our daily activities. Another reason for loosing its primary role is that, in Allan Farnsworth’s words, “decisional law [today] stands below legislation in the hierarchy of authorities and case law is subject to change by statute” (1996, 37). Or perhaps the most accurate explanation is that “legislation has so increased in quantity and importance in the United States during the past century” (Id., 61) that it only makes sense that this incursion in the study of tangible legal norms also starts with legislation.

Legislation, which comprises both federal and state statutes, is also known as statutory law. Through statutes legislative bodies attempt to ensure social stability and make our future predictable. Legislation represents a major component of legal normativism. Unlike case law, which is driven by particular controversies, legislation is the result of perceived public needs that require a solution for the future. The source of statutory law is statutes and ordinances.

Statutes are the result of a legislative process that takes place at the federal, state, and even municipal level. The legislative process includes drafting bills and their passage through the legislative body and ends with the bill becoming a public or private law, a statute.

Once a statute governs a specific social activity, every time a dispute arises within that area of activity, courts will interpret the statute and solve the dispute according to the applicable statutory provision. In that process, the parties’ attorneys will offer their own interpretation of the statute to the court, hoping that theirs will prevail. Interpreting statutes, as further shown below, is a complex process, because often words do not translate into a single meaning. In order to better understand how statutory law works, we will first briefly describe how statutes are enacted and then identify the primary sources of statutory law: (a) the Constitution; (b-c) statutes enacted by Congress and the legislatures of the states; and (d) the ordinances issued by municipal bodies. Then we will talk about locating the appropriate repositories and a few basic techniques for finding specific statutory provisions. Finally we will talk about completing your research process and making sure that what you found is still good law.

  1. The Legislative Process: Brief Review
  2. Identifying the Sources of Statutory Law
  3. Applying Legislation: Interpreting Statutes
  4. How to Locate Statutory Law:

    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

  5. Completing Your Statutory Law Research