Skip to main content

Basic Legal Research

Overview of Statutory Law

Statutory law, law created by a legislative body, is a major source of primary authority in the United States.

  • Statutes are laws of general force and effect, in that they apply to all persons/entities in the covered jurisdiction.
    • Federal statutes are generally applicable across the country.
    • State statutes govern activities within their respective states.
    • There may also be ordinances passed by municipalities that are binding within the limits of those municipalities (e.g., Chicago Municipal Code).
       
  • Sometimes there are state and federal statutes on the same issue (e.g., there are federal environmental laws and Illinois environmental laws). What statutes apply to your case depends on whether a state or federal action is being pursued or whether a state or federal statute is deemed violated.
     
  • Statutes are fluid in nature.
    • Once enacted, the legislature may continuously return to the statute to change (amend) it.
    • Because of this fluidity it may be necessary to determine when particular language was added to or removed from a statute. Based on when an action occurred, a client may be governed by statutory language that is not in the current statute.
       
  • There can also be case law relating to statutes.
    • Like common law, this case law comes from the courts.
    • However, the court's purpose in a case involving a statute is to interpret and/or apply an existing statute.
    • The scope of the decision is only as broad as the statute.
       
  • Some areas of law may be governed by both common law and statutory law. In this situation you will want to look at:
    • the relevant statute
    • the case law interpreting that statute
    • the body of common law related to the issue

Forms of Publication of Statutory Law: Session Laws & Codes

The terms statutes, laws, and codes are often used interchangeably. However, there two distinctive forms of publication for statutory law:

Session Laws:

  • Published chronologically in the order in which they were enacted.
     
    • Federal session laws are called Public Laws and are composed of the number of the Congress plus the law number. Thus Pub. L. 107-412 represents the 412th law enacted during the 107th Congress.
       
    • Illinois session laws are called Public Acts and are composed of the number of the General Assembly plus the law number. Thus Pub. Act 91-163 represents the 163rd law enacted during the 91st General Assembly.
       
  • Session laws may contain several sections, each of which may be codified in different parts of the code. Because of this they are not easily searchable by subject.

Codes:

  • A subject-based arrangement (compilation) of the enacted laws
  • Include alphabetical subject indexes to assist you in locating statutes by topic
  • Provide an easily identifiable location to the law, e.g.:
    • Federal: 42 U.S.C. §200h (2012)
    • Illinois: 735 ILCS 5/2-1202 (2014 State Bar Edition).
       
  • Codes are published in two forms:
    • Unannotated codes:
      • Provide the text of the statute
      • Provide a list of the public laws (federal) or public acts (Illinois) associated with the statute. This is referred to as the credit or source credit. The first public act/law listed should be the act that created the code section.
         
    • Annotated codes:
      • Annotated codes also provide the text of the statute and a list of the public laws/acts (Illinois) associated with the statute. However they contain additional editorial enhancements helpful to the researcher, including:
        • Case annotations (short descriptions of cases which interpret or apply that code section)
        • Historical and statutory notes providing summaries of the changes each public law or public act made to the section
        • References to secondary sources
      • Annotated codes are considered "unofficial."

Federal Codes

  • United States Code (U.S.C.) - 27 titles of the U.S. Code are considered "official." For the other 23 titles, session laws are controlling in language conflicts. Published by the GPO.
     
  • United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.) - unofficial - published by West
     
  • United States Code Service (U.S.C.S.) - unofficial - published by Lexis (no longer updated in print at the law library)

Illinois Codes

  • Illinois Compiled Statutes - semi-official - published by the Illinois State Bar Association
    • Citation format: [chapter] ILCS [section] ([year] State Bar Edition).
       
  • Smith-Hurd Illinois Compiled Statutes Annotated - unofficial - published by West
    • Citation format: [chapter] ILCS [section] (West [year]).
       
  • Illinois Compiled Statutes Annotated - unofficial - published by LexisNexis. (You may hear the Lexis version being referred to as the "Michie" set, which the name of the previous publisher before Lexis took it over.)
    • Citation format: [chapter] ILCS [section] (LexisNexis [year]).
    • Important: the Michie (Lexis) version does not always contain complete source credit information for each statute. Either the unannotated code, or the Smith-Hurd annotated code, will provide complete source credit information.

Note: Other states may have fewer versions of their codes than Illinois does.

Finding Aids for Statutory Research

When researching a topic, begin with the code's index.
  • The language used by legislators in the text of a statute may not be the language you would use when looking for information on a topic. The index helps bridge the gap between the researcher's "language" and the legislative "language."
  • While codes are organized by topic, relevant information may be found in multiple sections of a code. The index can help to identify all possible sections of the code that may be of interest.
To find a statute when you only know its name:
  • Federal:
    • The Popular Names Table in the U.S.C.A. (West). It is available online; in print, it is located with the subject indexes at the end of the set.
    • The Popular Names Table in the U.S.C.S. (Lexis). It is located in one of the Tables volumes at the end of the set.
  • Illinois:
    • The Popular Names Table in the Smith-Hurd (West) annotated set. It is available online; in print, it is located at the end of the last volume of the Subject Index.
    • The Short Titles to ILCS table in the Michie (Lexis) annotated set. It is located near the end of the Tables volume.
To convert citations from the former Illinois Revised Statutes to the current Illinois Compiled Statutes, use:
  • The Disposition Table in the Smith-Hurd (West) annotated set, located in the Tables volume.
  • The Listing of Old Chapter and Paragraph Numbers table in the Michie (Lexis) annotated set, located in the Tables volume.
  • The tables included with the State Bar Edition (unannotated) set.

Updating Statutes Using Print Resources

An important part of statutory research is ensuring you have the most current version of the law. Once you have located a relevant statute or code section, you must always check for updates to that statute or code section.

  1. Check for a pocket part (a small pamphlet tucked into the back of the volume), or freestanding supplement volume (shelved next to the volume), to the print volume containing your statute.
     
  2. Check the date of the pocket part or supplement to see how current it is. The date will usually be printed on the title page. If there is no pocket part or supplement, check the title page of the main volume for its date.
     
  3. Changes may have occurred since the date the volume, pocket part or supplement was published. To find these changes you need to use a legislative service. These are pamphlets containing the most recent changes to the law and are available for the federal and Illinois annotated code sets. The legislative service pamphlets are generally shelved at the end of their respective code sets (see below for exceptions).
     
  4. To use a legislative service, go to the back of the most recent booklet in the service and refer to the table at the back (each set has a different name for this table, see below). The table is cumulative through all published pamphlets and is arranged by code section. If there have been any changes to your statute or code section they will be listed in this table.
  • Federal Codes:
    • United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.) - unofficial - published by West
      • Legislative service name: United States Code, Congressional & Administrative News
        • Note: the legislative service pamphlets are not shelved after the U.S.C.A. but after the U.S.C.C.A.N. (KF 48 .W47), a set that reprints the full text of federal session laws.
      • Table name: "U.S. Code and U.S. Code Annotated Sections Amended, Repealed, New Etc."
         
    • United States Code Service (U.S.C.S.) - unofficial - published by Lexis [no longer updated in print at the law library]
      • Legislative service name: Advance Service
      • Table name: "Table of Code Sections Added, Amended, Repealed or Otherwise Affected"
         
  • Illinois Codes:
    • Smith-Hurd Illinois Compiled Statutes Annotated - unofficial - published by West
      • Legislative service name: West's Illinois Legislative Service
      • Table Name: "Illinois Compiled Statutes Amended, Repealed, Etc."
         
    • Michie Illinois Compiled Statutes Annotated - unofficial - published by LexisNexis
      • Legislative service name: Advance Legislative Service [no longer updated in print at the law library]
      • Table name: "Table of Sections Added, Amended or Repealed"
  1. If your statute has been amended -- that is, there is a public law (federal) or public act (Illinois) listed in the table of the legislative service -- read the text of the amended law in the legislative service. The text may be published in an earlier legislative service pamphlet than the one containing the table you referenced (only the tables are cumulated; the public laws/acts are merely printed in chronological order as they are enacted).

Updating Statutes Online

When working with statutes online it is still necessary to go through the update process, because changes are not always integrated into the text of the statute right away. Effective dates, and other legislative events, may affect when changed language is incorporated into a code section.

  • As in print resources, the online version of a statute will provide a source credit: a list of public laws (federal) or public acts (Illinois) creating and amending the code section. However, this may not be the most current version of the law.
     
  • One way to look for pending legislation that may affect your code section is to use KeyCite (West) or Shepard's (Lexis).
    • Using either of these services will provide you with a report listing amending public laws or public acts to your code section.
    • If the report indicates there is a newer public law or public act, be sure to locate and read the text of the newer law.
    • Even if the Shepard's or KeyCite report does not indicate pending legislation, you may still want to check current Congress or General Assembly activity to determine if any relevant bills are under consideration that may affect your code section. Both Lexis and Westlaw offer bill-tracking, and bill full-text, databases to assist in this process.

© 2016 Board of Trustees of Northern Illinois University. All rights reserved.