This morning at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries in Vancouver, prof. Penny Hazelton of the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle offered a whirlwind tour of US legal research.
Her talk was called "Everything you wanted to know about US legal research but were afraid to ask!"
Throughout her talk, Hazelton tried to contrast and compare US and Canadian legal and judicial structures to emphasize similarities as well as key differences.
She first stressed something that law librarians training users need to always explain: the differences in terminology even for the simplest concepts of legal research. Where Canadian jurisdictions have acts, the US system talks of session laws or public laws. Canada's revised statutes can compare to what Americans call Codes (not an exact parallel but close enough), and our noting up becomes their updating.
After describing the process of federal legislative codification south of the border, Hazelton described the best free sources for the United States Code, the subject classification of federal laws, urging librarians to first check out the official Code on the Congressional website at http://uscode.house.gov because of its currency and the incorporation of amendments from the most recent new federal laws.
For federal legislative history, she referred attendees to the collection of histories on HeinOnline and to the Congress.gov website for more recent legislation. Congress.gov has links to bill summaries, debates, Congressional committee reports and other documents related to the progress of bills through Washington.
When it comes to finding judicial opinions, she stressed the need to understand the structure of state and federal courts as well as the many different names under which state-level courts can be known, with some states calling their highest appeal courts "Supreme Courts" and others "court of appeal". She also drew attention to the fact that many lower trial court rulings were never published but only made available via the local courts themselves.
An understanding of how certain states had expertise in some areas of law was also a help in knowing which state appeal courts were likelier to have wrestled with a issue. For instance, Texas courts probably had more to say about oil and gas law, Delaware probably had more important corporate law decisions because many companies incorporated there, etc.
She listed a few of the best free sites for finding jurisprudence, starting with the websites of the courts themselves, although she stressed the need to read any disclaimers on court websites: in many cases, court websites explain that cases there are not the official version, which is found in a print case reporter.
Among the sites she mentioned are Google Scholar, Ravel Law, Findlaw, Cornell's Legal Information Institute, CaseText.
She finished with a few tips:
- use research guides, the best sites for finding them being the websites of the law school libraries at Georgetown, University of Washington and Cornell
- network with American law librarians
- use Google Scholar (though she warned there is no way of knowing how current or comprehensive Google's collections of legal materials are)
- subscribe to HeinOnline which has very rich US collections
- libraries lacking funding should consider subscribing to the major vendors' citators only (Westlaw's Keycite and LexisNexis' Shepard's service) as opposed to their full collections of legal materials since the commercial services are the only reliable sources for noting up laws and cases
Labels: comparative and foreign law, conferences, law libraries, legal research and writing