Features - Update to A Guide to the U.S. Federal Legal System: Web-Based Publicly Accessible Sources

Gretchen Feltes is the Reference Librarian at the New York University School of Law Library.

Updated: August 15, 2002, July 21, 2003 and October 15, 2003

Editor's note: Additional resources and changes to Website addresses for this current update are indicated by  (turquoise background color) for easy identification.


Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Introduction to the United States Federal System
A. The Structure of the Federal Government
B. The Constitution
III. Legislation
A. Background
B. Proposed Legislation
C. Enacted Legislation
1. Presidential Action
2. Publication of Enacted Laws
D. Codified Law
E. Legislative Intent
1. Committee Reports
2. Congressional Hearings
3. Congressional Record
F. Historical Documents
IV. The Judiciary
A. The Court System
B. Federal Trial and Appellate Courts
C. Supreme Court
D. Courts of Special Jurisdiction
V. Executive Branch and Administrative Law
A. Background
B. Administrative Law Sources
1. Federal Register
2. Code of Federal Regulations
3. Administrative Rulings and Decisions
C. Presidential Documents
1. Executive Orders and Proclamations
2. Presidential Documents
VI. Meta Links
VII. Tutorials

I. Introduction

I was asked by my colleague at the New York University School of Law Library, Mirela Roznovschi, to prepare this guide to US legal research for the International/Foreign Law section of this website originally published on October 1, 2000.  I have since updated this guide several times. For this reason, I have chosen to treat the United States like a foreign jurisdiction and to address the guide to legal researchers in a more global setting. I have made the assumption that access to printed sources and fee-based databases is limited. This guide is intended to direct legal research through publicly accessible web-based databases. It is not intended to supplant traditional sources of legal research. Indeed the initiative to make primary law sources available freely accessible on the internet is new. Most databases begin holdings in the mid-1990s.

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II. Introduction to the United States Federal System

A. The Structure of the Federal Government

The legal system in the United States is an often uneasy balance of national government and the governments of the fifty states. There are parallel systems of executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, and shared powers among the states and the federal governments. The interrelationship between the state and federal systems can be quite complex. Simply stated, the powers of the federal government are specifically defined in the Constitution. Those powers not expressly prescribed therein are left to the jurisdiction of the fifty sovereign states. Conflicts between state and federal laws are governed by the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, which declares that all laws enacted in the furtherance of the Constitution are the "supreme law of the land," and that federal laws have legal superiority over a state constitution or law.

B. The Constitution

The Constitution is the founding document for the United States federal government. It is the basic and "supreme law of the land." It defines the structure of the federal government, provides the legal foundation on which all its actions must rest, and guarantees the rights due to its citizens. No laws may contradict any of the Constitution's principles. The federal courts have jurisdiction to interpret the Constitution and evaluate the constitutionality of federal and state laws.

The Constitution creates a federal government be comprised of three separate and equal branches: legislative, executive and judicial. The legislative branch, Congress, has the authority to make laws. The executive branch, the President and cabinet, has administrative and regulatory power. The judiciary interprets the laws. The government is designed to provide a system of "checks and balances," in which each branch has oversight powers over the others. For example, the President may veto legislation passed by Congress. For most legal research, the judicial review of legislation is most substantial. Although Congress has the authority to modify prospectively a judgment of the Supreme Court, in practice, the Court is considered to have the "last word" in United States law.

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III. Legislation

A. Background1

Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution creates a bicameral legislature known as Congress, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The chief function of Congress is to enact laws. The House and the Senate have equal legislative functions and powers. There is no "upper" or "lower" house in Congress. Legislation must be passed by the majority of each chamber of Congress before it is sent to the President to be signed into law. Among the powers vested in Congress are the power to lay and collect taxes, duties and tariffs and to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states.

The Senate has 100 members (two from each state), elected to six year terms. The House of Representatives has 435 members, who serve two year terms. Each chamber has standing committees that prepare and draft legislation.

B. Proposed Legislation

Proposed legislation may be initiated in either chamber of Congress in one of four formats: bills, joint resolution, concurrent resolution or simple resolution. The bill format is most common. There are two kinds of bills: public and private. Public bills affect the public generally, private bills are used to address the matters of individuals. When a bill is introduced, it is numbered by the clerk of the house introducing the legislation. This is the first reading of the bill. It is next referred to one of the standing committees.

The committee may table the bill or continue the drafting process. Hearings may be held on the subject of the bill. The committee may debate and amend the bill before voting on it. If there is a favorable vote, the bill is sent to the floor of the house where the clerk reads it line by line to the house. Members may debate and offer amendments. After a third reading the bill is put to a vote. When a bill is voted upon and passed by one chamber, it is referred to the other house. If the approved bill is reported in the second houses, where it may be accepted as is or amended. If amended and passed in the second chamber, the bill is returned to the originating house for final vote.

C. Enacted Legislation

1. Presidential Action

Each bill is passed by Congress is enrolled for Presidential action. A bill becomes law by Presidential signature. The Constitution requires the President to approve the bill by signature or to veto it by returning the bill to the house from which it originated with his objections for reconsideration. The objections are read and debated in Congress before a roll call vote is taken. A veto overridden with a two-thirds vote in each chamber, and the bill becomes law. Finally, a bill may become law by "pocket veto," whereby the President does not return the bill to Congress with objections within10 days.

2. Publication of Enacted Laws

When a law is signed by the President, it is assigned a public law number. The first printing of the public law is known as a "slip law." The Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration prepares and publishes the enacted legislation. The printed law has a heading that includes the public law number, date of approval, bill number and title. Statutes at Large enumerations appear in the top right corner of the page. Annotations citing to laws and where the text will be codified in the United States Code appear in the margins.

At the end of each Congressional session, the slip laws are compiled in the United States Statutes at Large. It is the official chronological publication of the laws and resolutions enacted by Congress. In addition, the text of amendments to the Constitution and of presidential proclamations are found in Statutes at Large. Because the text of a public law remains unchanged from the slip law to Statutes at Large, there is not a separate database on GPO Access.

D. Codified Law

The Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives prepares the official subject compilation of all general and permanent laws, known as the United States Code. There are fifty subject "titles" found in the United States Code. New editions are published every six years, with cumulative supplements printed at the end of each regular session of Congress. The current edition of the United States Code is the 1994 edition.

Tables for updating the United States Code are found on the Law Revision Counsel website. The tables reflect where recently enacted laws will appear in the Code and, conversely, which sections of the Code have been amended. Coverage begins with the 106th Congress in 1999 and is updated through the 107th Congress.

E. Sources for Legislative Intent

1. Committee Reports

The work of preparing and drafting legislation is done largely by the standing committees of both the House (19) and Senate (16). Each bill is referred to the appropriate committee. If a committee votes to report a bill to the larger house, a report is written to analyze and describe the purpose and scope of the proposed law. There is a section-by-section analysis of the bill. It accompanies a bill when it is returned to the introducing chamber for debate and a vote. Reports often include statements of the committee's rationale for its recommendation for passage of the bill. A committee report is the most important document of legislative intent. A committee report is numbered firstly by Congress, and then sequentially (i.e. 106-1).

Bill Texts and Summaries can be found at:

  • THOMAS - Full text of Senate and House committee reports since 1995, accessible by keyword bill number, report number and committee
  • GPO Access - Full text, searchable files

2. Congressional Hearings

Public hearings may be held by the standing and special Committees of either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Experts and interested persons and groups may be invited by Committees to speak to the need of legislation or air a controversial situation. Committees generally require witnesses to file a written statement of their proposed testimony. Transcripts of public hearings are frequently printed and distributed. Committee hearings schedules and selected statements and transcripts can be found on the THOMAS website under the individual Committee names.

3. Congressional Record

The Congressional Record is published each day the Congress is in session. It is the official record of the debates, proceedings and activities of Congress. It presents a complete rendition of all bill and amendment texts and of all motions or procedural matters.

Full text searchable files are found at:

F. Historical Documents

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IV. The Judiciary

A. The Court System3

Article III of the Constitution establishes the federal judiciary branch of government. The Supreme Court was organized in 1790 with judicial power to review cases arising under the Constitution, the Laws of the United States and treaties. Statutory authority for the Court can be found in 28 U. S. Code Sect.1251 et seq. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to create additional federal courts. The hierarchical system which evolved is Courts of Appeal and lower level trial courts, Federal District Courts.

The federal courts have the judicial responsibility to rule on the constitutionality of federal laws, to interpret and to apply the laws to resolve disputes. The federal courts have "limited" jurisdiction in that they can only decide certain types of cases as determined by Congress or defined in the Constitution. That means the federal courts decide cases interpreting the Constitution, all federal laws, federal regulations and rules, and controversies between states or between the United States and foreign governments.

Federal Judicial Center website maintained by the US Administrative Office of the Courts has a number of publications online that further explain the federal court system in the United States. They publish the following:

Understanding the Courts, The Federal Court System in the U.S.: An overview of the federal court system in:

  • English
  • French
  • Russian
  • Serbian
  • Turkish
  • B. Federal Trial and Appellate Courts

    The federal district courts are the trial courts, both civil and criminal, in the federal system. There are 94 federal district courts. Each district includes a bankruptcy court, including Florida which has a bankruptcy lawyer in Lakeland, FL. In addition, there are two special trial courts with nationwide jurisdiction over international trade/customs, Court of International Trade, and the Court of Federal Claims, with jurisdiction over most claims for money damages against the United States, disputes over federal contracts and unlawful "takings" of private property by the federal government.

    A lower court's ruling on an issue of law may be appealed to the intermediate appellate court. In the federal court systems, these intermediate courts are the United States Courts of Appeal. The 94 federal district courts are organized into 12 regional appellate courts and the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. These courts hear appeals from the district courts and federal administrative agencies. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, located in Washington, has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals from specialized cases, like patent cases, as well as appeals for the Court of International Trade and Court of Federal Claims.

    Federal Case law can be found at:

    Biographical information can be found at:

    C. United States Supreme Court

    The United States Supreme Court is the court of final appeal. The Court is comprised of the Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. Cases heard by the Supreme Court usually involve questions about the Constitution or federal law. Cases may begin in the federal or state courts. The court has discretionary power to decline review of cases from lower courts by denying petitions of certiorari or dismissing appeals.

    Background information about the Supreme Court can be found on the following page from The United States Supreme Court website:

    Biographical information:

    United States Supreme Court cases:

    D. Courts of Special Jurisdiction

    In addition to the courts described above, there are federal courts with jurisdiction over specialized areas of law including bankruptcy, tax, federal claims, international trade and military appeals. Each of the 94 federal districts has a bankruptcy court. The US Tax Court handles appeals from the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue. The US Court of Federal Claims and the US Court of International Trade have nationwide jurisdiction. The Court of International Trade has jurisdiction over civil actions arising out of import transactions and federal statutes affecting international trade. The Court of Federal Claims hears cases involving money claims with the United States. The Court of Military Appeals is independent of the Department of Defense and is composed of five civilian judges who act as the final appellate tribunal in military law.

    Recent decisions may be found at the following:

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    V. Executive Branch and Administrative Law

    A. Background

    The Executive branch of the federal government includes the President, the Vice President, the Cabinet and the federal agencies. Among the Presidential powers are the power to nominate the federal judiciary, ambassadors and all other officers of the United States. He has primary authority for foreign affairs. The President has legislative oversight powers by power of veto.

    The President selects the Cabinet and the heads of governmental agencies, subject to approval by Congress. The Cabinet is the highest advisory group to the President. The fourteen Cabinet departments are State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education and Veterans Affairs. In addition, there are governmental agencies that serve specific needs. They include the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission.

    The United States Government Manual is the directory of the administrative agencies of the federal government, as well as quasi-official agencies, and international organizations in which the US participates. Outlines statutory authority, jurisdiction, major publications of the agencies and a directory of personnel.

    B. Administrative Law Sources

    Congress has the authority to write the laws but gives authority to promulgate rules and regulations to interpret and to administer those laws to the federal agencies. The government agencies issue rules and regulations that have the force of law and preempt state laws and rules. A general statement describing the rule's purpose and authority usually accompanies the final rule. Technically, the administrative law is subordinate to legislation. In addition, the President has broad powers to issue executive orders to direct the actions of agencies or government officials or to set policies for the executive branch to follow.

    1. Federal Register

    The publication of federal rules and regulations loosely parallels the publication of laws, in that they are published firstly, chronologically in the Federal Register, and in subject arrangement in the Code of Federal Regulations. Rules and regulations go through a process of notice and comment before they are final. The notice describes the proposed rule and allows the public at least 30 days to comment. After this process the agency can issue a final rule. A general statement describing the rule's purpose and authority usually accompanies the final rule.

    The Federal Register is published each business day. Material is arranged under one of five headings.

    1. Presidential Documents (proclamations, executive orders, other executive documents)
    2. Rules and regulations (with force of law) CFR references, agency, summary of actions, effective dates and text of the regulation and change. Rules are published 30 days prior to effective dates. Comments received and subsequent actions are summarized
    3. Proposed rules and regulatory agendas, hearings notices
    4. Notices of matters not concerned with rulemaking agency decisions and rulings, impact statements, et cetera
    5. Notices of Sunshine Act meetings

    Each issue of the Federal Register contains a table of contents arranged by agency name and any rules, proposed rules, and notices of the agency, followed by a table of changes in regulations (List of Sections Affected) arranged by Code of Federal Regulations citation. The last issue of the month contains a cumulative list of sections affected.

    2. Code of Federal Regulations

    The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is a codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the federal agencies. Regulations are codified in a subject arrangement of fifty titles similar to the United States Code. The CFR is divided into 50 titles which represent broad areas subject to federal regulation. Each title is divided into chapters and parts. The chapters usually bear the name of the issuing agency. The entire code is revised on an annual basis. In addition, the federal agencies have adjudicatory power in determining cases and questions arising over regulations. Many decisions can be found on the websites of the federal agencies.

    3. Administrative Rulings and Decisions

    Most federal agencies have a quasi-judicial power in determining cases and in ruling about questions arising from their regulations. This adjudicatory power involves settling disputes between or among parties or between parties and the government. For example, a dispute may arise when an agency has made a binding and case-specific ruling about the citing of federal facility. The property owner may appeal the decision to the an administrative law judge. There is fact-finding process, known as a hearing, and a ruling based upon the agency regulations. Hearings are conducted by an administrative law judge who issues the initial decision. Decisions may be appealed to a higher authority in the agency, then through the federal courts. Most federal agencies write formal opinions. Slowly, these decisions and rulings are appearing on the websites of the federal agencies.

    Examples of federal agency websites for administrative rulings and decisions:

    Federal rules and regulations can be challenged in the federal courts. Most challenges occur in the United States Courts of Appeal based on the premise that the fact-finding aspects of the case, the trial of the case, has occurred in the agency hearing and subsequent agency appeals. The courts have the authority to review federal agency rules and actions. The court can decide all relevant questions of law, interpret the constitutional and statutory provisions and interpret the meaning or applicability of a rule or regulation. Decisions for appeals heard in the federal courts can be found on the federal courts websites. See section IV, B.

    C. Presidential Documents

    1. Executive Orders and Proclamations

    As discussed above, the President can issue Executive orders to direct the actions of the federal agencies or to set policies for the executive branch to follow. They are official documents, numbered consecutively. Executive orders are printed in the Federal Register.

    2. Presidential Documents

    The Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents is published by the Office of the Federal Register. Statements, nominations, messages, speeches, press conferences and other Presidential materials released by the White House in the preceding week are found here. Searchable files going back to 1993 are found at the National Archives website.  The Weekly Compilation is cumulated annually in the Public Papers of the President.

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    VI. Meta Links

    Comprehensive Federal Law Websites

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    VII. Tutorials

    The following websites offer tutorials in researching federal law:

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    Footnotes

    1A full description of the legislative process in the United States is found in the pamphlet, How Our Laws Are Made by Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives. The Law Librarian's Society of Washington, DC has placed a comprehensive Federal Legislative History Research guide by Richard J. McKinney on its website.  It is available in both HTML and PDF formats.   <back to text>

    2 Note: These versions of the U.S. Code contain the margin notes prepared by the Law Revision Counsel and reflect amendments made to existing law. There are legislative history notations. They do not contain case annotations and cross references to secondary sources of law.   <back to text>

    3 For a detailed introduction to the federal court system see Understanding the Federal Courts (PDF file).   <back to text>