Statutory Research Checklist
Updated Oct. 29, 2012.
Prepared by Cheryl Nyberg; updated by Andrew Martineau (2012) and Jackie Woodside (2009).
Statutes are laws enacted by legislatures, like the U.S. Congress and the Washington State Legislature. See Free Law Online for links to free sources of statutes for Washington and other U.S. statutes.
Conduct preliminary analysis to determine:
- Jurisdiction: federal or state
- Keywords: search terms that you will use to describe the legal question
- Time period: current law or law in force at some time in the past
Consult secondary sources (law reviews, encyclopedias, hornbooks, nutshells, deskbooks, etc.) to learn more about the topic. These sources often provide citations to relevant statutes or to the popular name of the statute.
- If you find a statutory citation, read the statute but continue the research process. There may be other statutes that affect your issue.
- If you find a reference to the popular name of the law, consult the popular name table included in many (but not all) statutory codes.
- Review the Gallagher guide on Secondary Sources for more information.
Subject Indexes & Popular Name Tables
Use the subject index and/or the popular name table for the appropriate statutory code.
- Indexes are found at the end of the print set; most indexes are multi-volume. Westlaw contains indexes for the U.S. Code and for state statutes. LexisNexis does not.
- The Office of Law Revision Counsel provides a US Code Popular Name Tool.
- Start with specific terms and proceed to more general terms.
- Use synonyms and alternative expressions (for example, "dissolution of marriage" as well as "divorce").
- Be creative, flexible, and persistent but remember: not all legal issues are governed by statute. Go back to secondary sources if you fail to find an appropriate statute.
- Record the subject headings you have searched and any likely statutory citations. Keeping a record will help you do efficient and effective research.
- If you know the popular name of a law (such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Growth Management Act), look for the popular names table that is located with the indexes. LexisNexis and Westlaw include popular name tables for federal statutes.
Online Keyword Search
Online Sources: Search by keywords.
- Searching for statutes online can be difficult. You have to anticipate the language used by the legislature in writing the law.
- Use truncation, wild-cards, and Boolean searching to improve your results.
- Search the online index to statutes, if one is available. The index will provide cross-references to preferred terms and synonyms.
Read & Browse the Statute
- Read the statute to determine if it does indeed cover the legal issue you are researching.
- Browse the chapter or title outline to see if other sections may also be pertinent.
- Many modern statutes include a purpose or legislative findings statement. Reading these sections may help you understand why the legislature enacted the law.
- Look for a definitions sections. Often the legislature will provide a list of definitions of words or phrases used in a law. Those definitions may vary from commonly accepted definitions.
- Check the pocket part in the back of the volume or the cumulative supplement. These supplements are usually published annually.
- Look for legislative service pamphlets. These updates are published throughout the year and usually include a cumulative list of statutes affected by recently enacted laws and a cumulative subject index.
- Record the dates of the pocket parts, cumulative supplements, and/or legislative service pamphlets that you use.
- Check the currency note at the beginning of the document.
- Note that not all online sources are up-to-the-minute. Some sources on the Internet may be more out-of-date than comparable print tools. LexisNexis and Westlaw are, however, more current than print sources.
- On Westlaw, use KeyCite to identify pending legislation that might affect the statute.
Look at the annotations to the statute(s).
- Annotations include a history of the law (when it was originally enacted and subsequently amended) and references to court decisions that have applied or interpreted the statute, law review articles that focus on the statute, and other material.
- Use the annotations to continue your research for mandatory and persuasive precedent (court cases).
Printable Statutory Research Checklist
Use this Word document as a reminder of steps to take in statutory research and to record sources consulted, search terms used, citations found, and coverage dates of updating tools. Get in the habit of taking research notes!
Other Online Guides & Tutorials
- University of Washington School of Law, Basic Legal Skills, PowerPoint slideshow on Statutes
- Nolo, Statutes & Cases
- Congressional Research Service, Tracking Current Federal Legislation and Regulations: A Guide to Basic Sources
- Georgetown University Law Library, Statutory Research Tutorial
- Cornell Library, Basics of Legal Research, Section IV: Statutory Law
- LexisNexis, Statutory Research Tutorial. After signing on to LexisNexis, select "Tutorials" from under the "Learning LexisNexis" tab. From the Tutorials page, under "Learn the Basics" select "Statutory Research."
- Westlaw, Finding Statutes
- Westlaw Instructional Aids Series, includes a series of PowerPoint presentations on Statutory Research.
- CALI, Introduction to State and Federal Statutes
- Law Librarians' Society of Washington, DC, United States Statutes and the United States Code: Historical Outlines, Notes, Lists, Tables, and Sources.