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Legal Research Resources for Beginners

This research guide provides basic information about the types of legal research resources and when to use them.

Primary Sources

Primary legal sources are the books and websites that comprise the formal, written statements of law issued by government entities.  The “law,” in this context, includes everything from a state’s statutes to a city’s ordinances to caselaw published by a court. Legal publishing companies compile these statements of the law itself and make them available in printed volumes, allowing the legal sector and the public to read the text of the law as it is at that point in time. You can also use primary legal sources to see how the law read at a specific time in the past.  It is common for governmental agencies to publish the text of the law online as well.

Legal publishing companies will often publish “annotated” editions of primary law that contain footnotes with references to other helpful resources such as prior laws on the topic, legal encyclopedia or law review articles on the topic, and cases decided on the specific section of law. These annotations can be very helpful in continuing your research.

Statutory Law

What is statutory law?

Statutory law is what most people think of when they think about "the law" - it is the body of formal law written by a legislative body, such as the Texas Legislature or United States Congress. Individual statutes are often grouped into “codes,” which are collections of laws based on similar subject matter. Legal publishers have created annotated versions of both the Texas statutes and the federal statutes (known as the United States Code), which list both the official text of the law and additional research references for each section of the statute. The annotations may list the history of the law, relevant resources in the library such as law review articles or encyclopedia articles, and cases decided on the statute. These annotated statutes are very informative, but they are only available in print and through databases like LexisNexis and Westlaw, which the State Law Library provides at our library computers. Fastcase, which is available through our remote access program, provides annotated statutes that have references to case law only. 

How are statutes updated?

In order to create, change, or repeal a statute, a legislative body must introduce and approve a bill. This bill will detail changes to the law, down to the exact words which are to be inserted or removed. For this reason, bills are a great resource when trying to track how a law has changed over time. Online resources usually contain information for all bills introduced, regardless of whether they were actually enacted into law. Print resources will only contain copies of the enacted bills; the Texas version is called the General and Special Laws of Texas and the federal version is called the Statutes at Large. Publishers typically do not create annotated versions of bills. 

Please see the "Online Resources" and "Print Resources" tabs for links to the different statutory resources available online and through the Texas State Law Library.

Why would I use statutes?

Statutes are a great place to start if you just want to know how the law reads now or at a specific time in the past. For this purpose, the unannotated online versions will probably be sufficient. Online coverage of historical statutes is spotty, but the State Law Library has a complete collection of historical statutes in print and a complete collection of historical Texas statutes from 1879-1984 available on our website.

You may also want to start with statutory resources if you know the Code and section number of a law and want to know more about it - for example, if you received a traffic ticket that cited to a specific section of the Transportation Code and would like to know if there is any case law involving similar situations to yours. If this is the kind of research you are doing, it's best to use the annotated statutes available in the Library or remotely through Fastcase. If you are not able to come to the Library to view these resources or to register for an account online, we offer a Document Delivery service that you can use to request copies.

Statutes and bills are also helpful if you would like to see the evolution of a statute over time. This is known as researching "legislative history." The Legislative Reference Library has an excellent guide to conducting legislative history and intent (trying to determine what lawmakers actually meant when they enacted a law).  

Texas Resources

Federal Resources

Texas Resources:

Vernon's Texas Statutes and Codes Annotated

Vernon’s Texas statutes and codes annotated

Vernon’s annotated Texas statutes provides the text of the statute as well as annotations that can be used to find additional research resources. The annotations will contain information on prior laws, relevant forms or treatise articles, and summaries of cases decided on that law. The Vernon’s annotated statutes are kept up to date with pocket parts – small booklets that are inserted at the back of a volume that list changes to the law.

General and Special Laws of Texas

General and Special Laws of Texas

The General and Special Laws of Texas are compilations of all the bills and resolutions passed in each legislative session. The bills are reproduced showing new text, deleted text, and the date the changes went into effect. This resource is very useful for seeing how the text of a law changed over time.

Federal Resources:

United States Code

United States Code

The United States Code (USC) is the official version of the federal laws published by the United States Government. The USC is reprinted in full every six years, with yearly supplements between reprints.

United States Code Annotated

United States Code Annotated

The United States Code Annotated (USCA) contains the text of federal laws along with additional research references, including references to law reviews, treatises, and summaries of cases decided on that law. The USCA is updated with pocket parts, but our library ceased updating this title in print in 2017.

United States Statutes at Large

Statutes at Large

The Statutes at Large is a collection of all of the bills and acts passed by the federal legislature that will become part of the United States Code.

Case Law

What is case law?

Case law is the body of law made up of the decisions of court cases tried in State and Federal courts. Parties may bring an issue to court to determine how a law should be applied or interpreted, whether a law is constitutional under the Texas or United States Constitution, or, in the case of civil suits, decide the outcome of an issue based on prior court decisions and the facts at hand. Courts use the principal of stare decisis (“stand with what has been decided”) to use previous cases as a precedent, or example, for how similar cases should be decided. Knowing how a particular legal issue has been treated by the court in the past can be very helpful in determining how a case may be treated in the future. 

Where are cases published?

Court decisions from appellate level courts are compiled in print volumes known as “reporters.” Cases from Texas appellate courts can be found in the South Western Reporter and South Western Reporter – Texas Cases. Cases in reporters are arranged chronologically, so in order to find cases within them you'll need to know the citation. The citation tells you exactly in which series, volume, and page you'll find the case you're looking for.

There are some free, online case law resources such as Google Scholar, but the cases you can access through them are often somewhat limited. Additionally, you will only have access to the text of the decision. The free sources do not include headnotes or digest numbers that can help you to find other cases. This may be sufficient if all you need is to read is what the decision said.

How can I search for cases?

If you haven't found that perfect case yet, reporters use the digest system to allow readers to find cases by subject. Digests assign numbers to topics and subtopics of law and list relevant cases under those numbers. Once you look a case up in a reporter, you'll also see "headnotes" that have a list of digest topics that the case would fall under. If you want to find more cases on a particular aspect of that case, you can take the digest number associated with that aspect of the case back to the digest and see what other cases are listed. Databases like Lexis Advance and Westlaw Next also use a headnote system and will also allow you to do sophisticated keyword searching.

Please see the "Online Resources" and "Print Resources" tabs for links to the different case law resources available online and through the Texas State Law Library.

Our librarians have created a guide to Case Law Research that includes tips on how to effectively conduct research in print and online.

Why would I use case law?

Case law sources can be very helpful in determining how a law has historically been interpreted and applied and, therefore, how it might be treated in the future. The opinions issued in cases may provide a historical background to a topic and provide insight into the legal reasoning around the judge’s decision. Annotated opinions will also use a headnote system to give a list of cases with similar legal elements. If you are representing yourself in court, finding cases similar to yours can strengthen your legal argument.

The Library no longer updates many of our print case law resources. Please see the "Online Resources" tab for resources you can use to do up-to-date case law research. 

We do maintain a current print subscription of Texas Cases:

West's Texas Cases

West's Texas Cases

This case law reporter only publishes the cases from the South Western Reporter that were decided in Texas courts. 

West's Texas Digest

West's Texas Digest

While not strictly a primary source, digests are indispensable for researching case law. The West digest system assigns "key numbers" to different subject areas and subtopics in the law. Editors then assign these key numbers to opinions from Texas appellate courts and list the cases under the appropriate key number in the digest. This allows a researcher to search for cases based on very specific and precise points of law.

Administrative Law

What is administrative law?

Administrative law is made up of the rules and regulations that govern how state and federal agencies function. These rules may assign responsibility and authority and detail agency procedures. They can be informative when trying to determine the role of different agencies in the functions of government and how an agency should conduct itself. They also may include information about how to appeal a decision or action by a government agency.  

Where is administrative law published?

In Texas, administrative rules are found in the Texas Administrative Code. When an agency would like to introduce a new rule or change or repeal an existing one, they must first publish these changes in the Texas Register. Similarly, the Code of Federal Regulations contains federal rules and regulations. Changes to the Code of Federal Regulations must be published in the Federal Register

Please see the "Online Resources" and "Print Resources" tabs for links to the different administrative law resources available online and through the State Law Library.

Why would I use these?

Administrative law can be very informative if you are dealing directly with a state or federal agency. The rules and regulations for that agency may help you understand what actions an agency may or must take, their basic procedures, and how to appeal a decision by that agency.

Texas Resources:

Texas Administrative Code

Texas Administrative Code

Paperback editions of the Texas Administrative Code are published on a yearly basis. The rules for similar agencies are grouped into titles. For example, the rules for the examining boards (Texas Medical Board, Texas Optometry Board, State Board of Public Accountancy, etc), are all found in Title 22. 

Texas Register

Texas Register

Issued on a weekly basis, the Texas Register contains information about changes to the Administrative Code. Agencies must first publish notice of any proposed new rules, amendments to existing rules, or proposed repeals in the Texas Register for public comment. Once a certain amount of time has passed, the agency can then publish notice in the Texas Register that these changes have gone into effect. The Texas Register may also contain contextual information about the changes to the rule(s) that can be helpful in research.

Federal Resources:

Code of Federal Regulations

Code of Federal Regulations

Similar to the Texas Administrative Code, the Code of Federal Regulations is published annually. 

Federal Register

Federal Register

Similar to the Texas Register, proposed changes to the Code of Federal Regulations must first be printed in the Federal Register.