Within the powers given by states, each municipal unit has its own fundamental law or charter and, of course, its own legislative branch. The municipal legislative bodies enact rules that deal with diverse issues of local importance, such as collecting the garbage, parking fines, or noise. Such rules of local legislative origin are commonly called “ordinances.”
For example, the New York City’s legislative branch is called the City Council. The New York City Council is the primary legislative body at the local level. It consists of 51 council members and enacts local laws or ordinances, which are freely searchable on line.
The mere fact of including local lawmaking bodies as part of the legislative branch defines the unique character of our legal system. In many countries which follow the civil law system, such as France, for example, local legislative branches of the government are circumscribed to the administrative branch. That is why, a researcher would be well-advised to start municipal research with a research aid tool, such as a research guide.
As mentioned earlier, each municipal unit has its own charter—fundamental law—and its own legislative branch. The repositories for this type of legislation will vary from municipality to municipality. Although, often, there are no published session laws similar to the state collection, the municipal local laws are available both in print and electronically.
For example, New York City’s legislative branch is called the City Council, and it predecessor was the Common Council. The City Council enacts local laws in annual council sessions. The New York City local laws are published in the New York City Legislative Annual and, starting with the 1998 session, online, at The New York City Council’s Legislative Research Center, where it can be accessed for free.
Actually, municipal law from various municipalities can be digitally accessed for free. Interestingly, commercial databases do not offer more or better coverage than the free-of-charge ones. In fact, Lexis has quite an extensive municipal codes library which covers municipalities from 35 states on the free web. Even more interestingly, if the strength of commercial databases resides in their ability to offer up-to-date results, when it comes to municipal laws, that service does not work. There are no citators for local laws. Shepards, KeyCite and B-Cite do not work for municipal ordinances.
More useful for municipal legal research are the guides provided by law librarians and a mere Google search. More on research tips in the sections below.