Finding the answer can sometimes be quite challenging if a person has a legal question. That may be because no standard method exists for answering every legal question. Students in law school take classes in which they are taught how to research and determine the law. One option a person always has is to consult an experienced lawyer in the area of law at issue. For a federal income tax problem, a person would want to consult a tax lawyer.
If the question is very simple or motivated by curiosity more than a direct legal or economic interest in the answer, a person might conduct their own research. There are several resources that a person might want to consult. Government at all levels works to make the content of its laws accessible to the governed.
One excellent resource is the website of the Legal Information Institute of the Cornell Law School. It has a free online law library. While this online library is not comprehensive, it provides a wealth of information, including statutory law. It offers access to the United States Code and many federal administrative codes, such as the Federal Rules of Evidence. It also offers access to a great deal of state law, including most state statutes and even the opinions of many state courts.
Another complication is that federal and state laws usually govern different government functions, but not always. For example, federal bankruptcy law interacts with state bankruptcy law in certain respects. Divorce is an issue that is exclusively governed by state law. So, depending on the issue, a person may have to research both federal and state law to get a complete answer.
Where Can I Find Laws?
Part of the problem is that there are many different levels of government in the U.S., each with its own laws. So, as a beginning point, it is helpful if a person knows whether they are researching federal, state, or local law.
First is the federal government, whose laws are contained in the United States Code. The U.S. Code is divided into sections by topic called “titles.” For example, the codes that deal with federal tax law are contained in Title 26. These titles are further subdivided into subtitles, chapters, subchapters, parts, and sections.
Then, in addition to the U.S. Codes, there are regulations. The departments and agencies of the federal government, e.g., the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), are authorized to make and publish regulations that supplement the U.S. Codes. The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is the official publication containing the verified official edition of all rules and regulations established by the departments and agencies of the federal government.
Federal regulations and rules are also available online in an electronic version as the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (eCFR). However, the online eCFR is not an official legal edition of the CFR.
What Role Do Courts Play?
Codes and statutes are far from the whole story regarding the law. The opinions of courts that have heard cases involving federal, state, and local laws are also critically important. How courts interpret laws as applied to particular real-life situations presented to them in cases is the last word on what the law is.
In this regard, the primacy and authority of the United States Supreme Court must be acknowledged. It issues opinions which are the final word on the constitutionality of all laws in the U.S., local, state, and federal. This is because all laws must comply with the mandates of the U.S. Constitution. For example, a law cannot give any governmental authority impermissible power to limit the right of citizens to speak freely, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Each state in the U.S. also has its own constitution, and state supreme courts issue rulings and opinions that interpret the respective constitutions of the states. States have municipal charters, and counties have their charters, which are like constitutions for local governments.
Again, the situation is made more complex because a federal court system deals with cases filed in federal courts presenting issues of federal law. And there are state court systems in every state that deal with cases filed in state courts presenting issues of state law. The federal courts also sometimes entertain cases in which they interpret and apply state law.
The rulings and opinions in cases filed in state and federal courts are the last words of the law. In these rulings and opinions, courts apply state and federal laws to decide real disputes between private individuals, businesses, and governments.
What Is the Law in States?
Each state in the U.S. has its own state laws. They are organized in much the same way as federal laws, regulations, and rules. For example, there are levels of law in New York State similar to the levels of federal law. First and foremost, the Constitution of the State of New York is freely available for reading online. Then there are the laws enacted by the state legislature. They are organized into titles, chapters, and parts and express all of the codes, rules, and regulations of the state of New York.
The texts of these laws are available through the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute website. As noted above, the rulings, opinions, memoranda, and motions issued by the state’s supreme court, the New York Court of Appeals, and the state’s appeals court, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, are critical to determining what the law is.
What About Local Laws?
Lastly, in New York, as in every other state in the U.S., local laws are enacted by counties, cities, and towns. The laws apply to the jurisdiction that enacts them. So county ordinances or regulations apply within the boundaries of a county. City ordinances or regulations apply within the boundaries of a city. These are all published so that the public can access them. Counties, cities, and towns may enact ordinances to the extent authorized by state law.
A person can access paper copies of these laws in a local law library. Often a county maintains a law library that any public member can use to research the law. A person can always ask the law librarian about resources for researching the law.
Then there are the laws of cities. New York City has its administrative code, the New York City Administrative Code, which contains the laws of New York City organized as titles, chapters, subchapters, and sections. Again, these are freely available online. Or a paper copy can be accessed in a law library.
San Francisco, California, has a municipal code that is available online. Chicago, Illinois, has its City Rules and Regulations. Houston, Texas, has its Code of Ordinances and the City Charter, which is like a constitution for a municipality. The city of Madison, Wisconsin, has its Code of Ordinances organized into chapters and numbered sections by topic. Every city and county in the U.S., however large or small, has its governing charter and municipal laws.
What Other Resources Are There for Answering Legal Questions?
If the question is very simple or motivated by curiosity more than a direct interest in the answer, a person might conduct their own research. As noted above, the law school at Cornell University maintains a free online law library, its “Legal Information Institute.”
Database services such as WestLaw and LexisNexis are more comprehensive, but they are offered as a business service, and a person must have a paid subscription to access their libraries. A subscription can be quite expensive, e.g., beginning at $1,202 per year for access to state law resources only.
A person’s state, county, and municipality are very likely nowadays to have online resources allowing a person to access all state statutes, administrative rules, and possibly some judicial opinions. If a person lives near a large university, they will likely have a law library, even if the university does not have a law school. A person can ask an employee at the university’s library about their policy regarding access to its collection by the general public.
Other resources are websites, such as LawHelp.org, which list organizations that can provide legal aid for free in various legal subject areas, e.g., landlord-tenant law, bankruptcy law, or divorce.
If a person requires legal information but not legal advice, one of these organizations should be able to answer their legal question for free or at a very low cost.
Do I Need the Help of a Lawyer for My Legal Question?
If your legal question is complicated or you do not know where to begin, you may want to consult a lawyer. Or if you need legal advice and not just information, your best option is to consult a lawyer. In addition to giving legal information, a lawyer can give you legal advice. Also, a lawyer gives reliable advice.
Legal advice applies the lawyer’s legal expertise to your specific factual situation. A lawyer is the only person legally authorized and qualified to give legal advice. While anyone with knowledge of the law is qualified to give someone information about the law, i.e., a statement of what the law is, without applying it to your situation, only a lawyer can advise you what to do about a particular legal problem.
A person should not rely on legal advice from a non-lawyer or even a lawyer you have not paid to guide your actions. If these people give you legal advice, you should disregard it.
If you do not know any lawyers, the state bar association in your state or county probably has a searchable database of licensed attorneys organized by practice area in your state. Or they have a lawyer referral service that can refer a person to a lawyer with the expertise they need. Usually, a lawyer referral service allows a person to consult the lawyer to whom they are referred for a minimal fee for the first visit.