Skip to Main Content

Introduction to Legal Research


Statutory law in the United States consists of the laws passed by the legislature. For the federal government, then, the statutory law is the acts passed by the United States Congress.

These acts are designated as Public Laws or Private Laws.  Public laws relate to the general public, while private laws relate to specific institutions or individuals.  Most of the laws passed by Congress are public laws, and these are the laws which you will typically need to research. 

Once a bill is passed by Congress and signed by the President it becomes a Public Law.  The legislation receives a Public Law number based on the Congress and when it was issued.  Therefore, P.L. 101-5 would be the fifth law enacted in the 101st Congress. 

Public laws are first published as slip laws and are subsequently bound into the Statutes at Large.  The Statutes at Large are bound laws in the order that they were passed.

Eventually, the laws are organized by subject, indexed, and published in the United States Code.  The United States Code consists of 50 separately numbered titles.  Each title contains laws specifically relating to that subject.  The code enables researchers to find the particular law they are looking for without having to know when it was passed.

Legislative Process

The following table illustrates how an idea for a law eventually becomes a codified law in the United States Code.  Each of these resulting publications can be important for a researcher in understanding the purpose behind a certain law. 

Legislative Action Resulting Publications 
A bill or resolution is introduced in a chamber of Congress and referred to committee Bills and resolutions
The committee holds hearings Hearings
The committee recommends passage Senate and House reports
Chamber debates Record of debate
Chamber votes Record of votes
President signs or vetoes the bill Presidential statements
Law is enacted

Slip laws, then Statutes at Large

Law is incorporated into the United States Code (codified). United States Code

How to Read a Citation

Citations to the United States Code generally follow the typical pattern of legal citation discussed in the Introduction. For example, here are the parts of a citation to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (2006).

28 U.S.C. §1332 (2006)
Title Number Code Publication/Source Section Number Date of publication


Below are examples of how to read code, public law, and Statutes at Large citations:

28 U.S.C.A. § 1332 Title 28, United States Code Annotated, Section 1332
P.L. 100-3 100th Congress, Public Law number 3
121 Stat 4 Volume 121, Statutes at Large, page 4

How to Find a Code Section by Citation

Once you have a citaiton for a statute, you will want to find it in the appropriate code publication.  Here is an example of how one would find 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (2006).

  1. Go to the appropriate publication (USC, USCA, or USCS).
  2. Look on the spine of the books for the title number (Title 28 in this case).
  3. Once you find the correct title, look on the spine of the book to see what sections are covered (some titles will be spread out over multiple books).
  4. Once you have located the book that inclues your section number, locate the beginning of your section.  Section numbers are usually listed in the top right hand corner of the page.  The beginning of the statute will provide the name of that particular statute.

Depending on what resource you are using, you might also find additional information in the code along with the statute.  The USCA and the USCS will both provide users with additional annotations to historical notes, case law, and secondary sources that have cited that particular code section. 

Search Tools

A researcher will not always have a statute citation when they begin their research.  In these circumstances, a researcher will have to locate a statute (if one exists) on their topic through a variety of methods. 

Not all law is statutory law.  Some laws can be case law or administrative law.  Therefore, do not get discouraged if you cannot find a statute on your particular issue.


The following are ways to search for a statute using the code itself:   

Tables of Contents:  All statutory codes will have a table of conetents.  Generally these table of contents will provide a list of the titles and the sections in those titles.  This may be difficult and time consuming for someone unfamiliar with the different titles in the statutory codes. 

Statutory Index:  The subject index allows users to search for their issues based on a structured index.  Provides references to appropriate code sections.

Popular Name Table: Allows users to search for statutes based on the popular name of the legislation.  Provides all the statutes that relate to that particular legislation.  Ex. USA Patriot Act


The following are other methods for locating a statute citation:

Legal Encyclopedias:  Sources like American Jurisprudence and Corpus Juris Secundum can provide users with annotations to statutes.  Look up your issue in the index to find sections of these sources on your particular issue.  Generally articles in these sources will provide users with footnotes to cited statutory sections.

Secondary books:  Many legal secondary books (treatises & hornbooks) will provide users with citations for statutory law.  Books on the appropriate topic or issue can be located through the library's online catalog, GIL.  

Statutes at Large

Legislative History

Just finding a statute may not finish your research.  Often you might want to know more background information about that particular statute, such as why the law was passed or what effect the legislature intended a particular section of the statute to have. 

A statute's legislative history refers to the the various documents created during a bills progress through the legislature.  These documents will often include revisions, debates, hearings, and reports about the bill.  These can be very important to you when trying to determine the legislature's intent in passing a law.

When you find a statute, the statute will include both a public law number and a Statutes at Large citation.  You can use these citations to find documents relating to legislative history (debates, reports, etc.) in the following resources:

For more information on how to compile a legislative history and the research tools available, look at Georgetown Law Library's Legislative History Research Tutorial.

Slip Laws

Code Publications

Updating Statutes

The law is constantly changing; therefore, it makes sense to check to make sure that your research is up-to-date.

One way that a researcher can check to see if the statute they have found is current is to check the Hein Checklist of Statutes (state and territorial) (KF2 .H44).  This book will provide the user with the most current date of that title.

Researchers should also check the pocket parts in the back of book.  The pocket parts are small paper inserts at the back of the book that provide updates to the bound volume.  If the statute found is not in the pocket part, then the bound volume represents the current statute.  If the statue is found is the pocket part, then the pocket part should be consulted for the current form of the statute.  

Pocket parts can also provide researchers with additional annotations that were not included in the original bound volume.     

Additional Guides

Here are some research guides created by other law schools that might be helpful in explaining how to conduct statutory legal research. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions of the authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the State of Georgia, and shall not be used for advertising or product endorsement purposes. Georgia State University College of Law and the authors of the works contained on this website do not assume or accept any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, currentness, or comprehensiveness of the content on this website. The content on this website does not in any manner constitute the issuance of legal advice or counsel. The information on this website is intended to provide resources that may aid the research of the topics presented, and are in no way a comprehensive list of sources one should consult on the topics presented. Please note that case law, statutory law, and administrative law may be modified and/or overturned. Additionally, because the laws vary between jurisdictions, the laws referred to herein may or may not be applicable to the law within the reader’s jurisdiction.